The Alaska House voiced its unanimous support Wednesday for having 20 Alaska Native languages join English as the state’s official language.
After emotional speeches from several lawmakers, the body burst into rare applause after Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins’ HB216 was approved.
“It’s recognition that Alaska Native languages are Alaska’s languages,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “It elevates the importance of revitalizing them and turning the tide of language loss — preventing them from going extinct.”
The bill now heads to the Senate, where its rapid approval is expected.
The 20 languages in the bill are Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.
Of those 20, only two are still spoken as the first language in Alaska homes, according to the Native Language Center of the University of Alaska. Many others are disappearing rapidly. According to Sealaska Heritage Institute, there are only three fluent speakers of Haida, 10 of Tsimshian and 120 of Tlingit. The last fluent speaker of Eyak died in 2008.
An amendment to the bill clarifies that state and local governments will not be required to print official letters or materials in any language other than English.
Juneau’s newest representative, Alaska Native Sam Kito III, rose in support of the measure during the floor session.
“The ability to speak a traditional or Native language is tied to the ability to sense a strong cultural tie to the people who speak those languages,” the Democratic representative said.
In the waning days of the 2014 Legislature, lawmakers in Juneau are fast-tracking efforts to recognize Alaskan Natives.
On Saturday, the Senate passed another bill from Kreiss-Tomkins that sets aside Nov. 14 each year as Dr. Walter Soboleff Day.
Soboleff, who died in 2011 at age 102, was the first Alaska Native Presbyterian minister and a powerful campaigner for Native rights and cultural education.
“This is an acknowledgement from the Alaska Legislature that this is an issue Alaska cares about and is important in Alaska,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.
The idea came to Kreiss-Tomkins while getting coffee after last year’s Legislature in Juneau.
Despite growing up in Sitka, where 25 percent of the population is Alaska Native, Kreiss-Tomkins said it was during the door-to-door days of his campaign that he began feeling connected to the Alaska Native communities he represents.
“This means so much to people — especially elders,” he said. “When they were growing up, the only government acknowledgment of their language was trying to exterminate it.
“This is a really big change,” he added, “a big 180.”