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Legislature Makes Alaska Native Languages Official State Languages

JUNEAU - Just after 3:00 a.m. this morning, the Alaska Legislature approved legislation (HB 216) making each of the Native languages in Alaska an official language of the state. The Alaska Senate voted 18-2 to approve the measure today in front of dozens of supporters. A spontaneous grassroots sit-in involving well over 100 people started at noon in the Capitol and lasted until 3 a.m. The measure has had tremendous public support throughout the process, including rare applause from supporters in both the Senate and House galleries and impromptu celebrations in the Capitol hallways as the bill moved through the committee process.

"In this late hour, on the night of Easter, we are excited to bear witness to the Alaska Senate passing this history-making bill to officially recognize our Alaska Native languages in the state they were birthed in," said Elizabeth Medicine Crow, CEO of First Alaskans Institute.

"Today, we recognize Alaska Native languages as Alaska’s languages,” said Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. “This is not my bill or any other legislator’s bill. This belongs to the Alaskans in the Capitol and across the state who gave their Easter Sunday to see HB 216 passed into law. This bill belongs to the people.”

The bipartisan legislation is prime sponsored by Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka), Representative Charisse Millett (R-Anchorage), Representative Benjamin Nageak (D-Barrow), Representative Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), and Representative Bob Herron (D-Bethel), and has 18 other cosponsors in the House.

In current state law, English is Alaska’s only official language. This bill expands the list to include Iñupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax╠é, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Passage of the bill will not require public signs and documents to be printed in multiple languages, and it will create no additional costs to the state. 

"Native culture enriches the lives of Alaskans in so many ways," said Millett. "Naming Alaska's twenty indigenous languages as official languages of the state of Alaska demonstrates our respect and admiration for their past, current, and future contributions to our state."

“This legislation will highlight the importance of revitalizing the rich cultural legacy inherent in Alaska Native languages,” said Edgmon, chair of the Bush Caucus. “We recently celebrated our 50th year of statehood. In another 50 years I would like to see the many languages of our first Alaskans playing a vibrant role in the lives of people all over the state.”

“This vote recognizes the past, encourages the present, and secures the future of our earliest Alaska languages, said Herron.

“Uum alerquutem ikayurciqaakut tamanritlerkaaun yugtun qaneryararput [This law will help our future through the preservation of our languages], said Alaska Federation of Natives Co-Chair Ana Hoffman, first in Central Yup’ik.

"We are thrilled that this bill passed. Alaska Native languages are cornerstones of our cultures, and this bill recognizes their importance. Many thanks to the legislators who voted for this recognition, and also to the educators and culture bearers who championed the legislation," said Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

“We applaud Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins and the State Legislature in acting to reverse historical assimilation policies that have sought to suppress Native languages.  The legislation is further significant in that it is a clear statement of the state’s recognition of cultural and linguistic diversity that represent one of our state’s greatest resources and is a major boost to ongoing language revitalization efforts,” said Rosita Kaaháni Worl Ph.D., president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

“I want to thank Representative Kreiss-Tomkins for starting the process of the passage of this bill. We, the co-sponsors, feel this bill will be a positive and long overdue formal legislative recognition of all the Native languages still spoken in this great state of ours and the people who still speak their own language,” said Nageak.

“Aarigaa, uvluluataq uvlupak. Una Pitquraq aquqtugumaaqtaqput piqpagnaqtuq Alaskam Inuqqaanginnun. Iluqaisa ataullugit Inuqqaangisa Alaskam uqausingat  atugaisuli. Uvagut Atanauruagut Alaskam Govamangata tavra taamna pitquraq inilakkipput. [Very good, this is a good day. This bill we are considering is highly regarded to the First People of Alaska. All of the languages of the First People of Alaska used in our long history are still in use today.  We want to preserve that.  We in the House of Representatives will collaboratively pass this bill.], said Nageak, first in Inupiaq, of which he is a fluent speaker.

“It’s a great day for Alaska when our legislature makes this gesture of respect and appreciation for Alaska’s Native people and their languages, which are in need of our encouragement and support, since numbers of speakers are on the decline,” said Lawrence D. Kaplan, director, Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Our Native languages originated in Alaska and developed here along with the cultures that they represent.  These languages are truly, uniquely Alaskan, and we at the Alaska Native Language Center are happy to hear that they have been honored in this way.  It’s another first for Alaska, since with the exception of Hawaii, no state has seen fit to recognize their indigenous languages in this way.  A big vote of thanks goes to our legislature that gave up Easter Sunday to serve our state.”

The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

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