Alaskans Celebrate the Native Language Restoration Bill

Passing on Tradition

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by Russ Slaten

State lawmakers saw the importance of bringing back the languages of Alaska's first people most recently with the passage and signing of Senate Bill 130. But before SB 130, Native Alaskans have seen a decrease in fluent speakers, and further back have experienced discrimination.

Since the arrival of Westerners to North America, the vibrancy of native languages has been on the decline. At one point, native speakers weren't even allowed to use their language in the classroom for fear of being punished. More recently, language recovery efforts have seen progress in various regions of Alaska, thanks to the growth of programs from native groups.

In order to prevent native dialects from experiencing the same fate as the Eyak language, which recently lost it's last fluent speaker, lawmakers are targeting the tribes with the least amount of resources.

"We're gonna try to emphasize those languages out there that have been put on the backburner, those languages that are kind of almost fading away. I see this as a way to continue on with the preservation of society, the values that are out there, the priorities that those cultures had that allowed them to go ahead and survive up here in Alaska for the last 10,000 years," said Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin.

Senate Bill 130 establishes the Alaska Native Language Advisory Council to assess today's programs and recommend new ones.

"I believe the momentum, the energy, the desire is there now. I see a stirring in a lot of young people, and they just want somebody to tell them, yes, it's not only possible, but it's desirable. And I think there's a lot of young people that will truly respond to that," said Rep. Alan Dick of McGrath.

The advisory council, formed by SB 130, will be made up of five voting governor appointees and two non-voting members of the legislature.

The council is given the responsibility of evaluating the state of languages and recommending changes to the governor and legislature every two years.

"Until the notion of conveying the language permeates to every individual, to every mother, and every father and every family it's not gonna work. It has to be a swelling up of desire to convey the language within our homes, and also using the institutions that we do have," said former state Sen. Willie Hensley.

Additionally, the council will coordinate efforts by the state's various agencies like the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Native Language Center, who released a report in 2007 that stated only 22 percent of Native Alaskans can speak their language.

"When you and I were born there were 6000 languages spoken on Earth, and now, fully half are not being taught to school children. What this means is we are living in a period of time in which within a single generation or two by definition, half of humanity's cultural legacy is being lost in a single generation. Alaskans, we're gonna help turn that tide," said Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

The first report from the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council is due July 1, 2014.

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Unitypeace said on Tuesday, Jun 19 at 7:06 PM

It is important for them to retain their identity, and language is an integral part of who we are.

ellis said on Saturday, Jun 16 at 6:22 AM

Just one more way of keeping native americans under the white man's rule.

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