Twenty alaska native languages became official languages of
the State of Alaska Thursday, as Governor Sean Parnell signed House
Bill 216 into law during the Alaska Federation of Native conference.
In a packed room at the Denaina Center in Anchorage, nearly
two dozen elders sat front and center as the governor and a handful
of legislators spoke to the importance of the bill.
The lawmakers spoke to the inspiration for the bill, and how
it was long overdue. Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka
sponsored the bill.
This seemed like an imperative in our state, he
said. Languages are our cultural DNA. Theyre a way of
understanding the world, of relating to the world. And the extinction
of a language is an immeasurable loss to a culture in a very fundamental
Language, he added, demanded action.
But it was the assembled speakers, teachers, and students of
nearly all of the 20 Alaska Native languages impacted by the new
law who spoke to the vitality of what the recognition means.
Lance Xhunei Twitchell, an associate professor at the
University of Alaska Southeast, began in Tlingit before switching
We have suffered so much with these languages, he
stressed, leaving unsaid the long history of language repression
So I ask you to, Twitchwell emphasized, fight
for your languages. Once that pen hits the paper, its a new
day. There is no such thing as language superiority, just as there
is no such thing as racial superiority. That is what were
Ceremonial pens used to sign the bill into law were given out
to the assembled elderswith each taking a moment to speak
to what the new law means for them, their language, and their communities.
Selina Kaseix Everson, a Tlingit speaker from Juneau originally
from Angoon, received the first pen. She blushed as she admitted
to being the oldest elder in the room; and, at the same time, she
marveled at how much change shes seen since the days when
she says she was punished for speaking her language.
is now the official state language.
One of them. And again, you dont know how thankful we are,
she said. We are rising as one.
Nomes Bernadette Yaayuk Alvanna-Stimpfle, who serves on
the Alaska Native Language Preservation Advisory Council, said the
new law finally puts speakers of all languages on an even field.
Speaking first in Inupiaq, she translated that means,
the English speakers are now equal with Inupiaq speakers.
As each of the assembled elders spoke, they agreed agreed that
the recognition of their languages was just one step in an ongoing
march. Many echoed sentiments of taking the next step in that march
by installing the newly-recognized languages into state education
programs, and in universities.