emotional Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, holds hands
with Liz Medicine Crow during debate on House Bill 216 in
the Alaska Senate. The legislation, which passed, would make
20 Alaska Native languages official state languages along
Supporters of a bill to make 20 Alaska Native languages official
state languages organized a 15 hour sit-in protest at the Capitol
on Sunday. Their dedication paid off early this morning, when the
Alaska Senate passed the measure on an 18-2 vote.
The Alaska House passed the bill last week, 38-0. It now heads
to Governor Sean Parnell for his signature.
the Senate gallery, Marian Call, Rep. Neal Foster, Rep. Jonathan
Kreiss-Tomkins, Liz Medicine Crow and Rep. Charisse Millett
(left to right) react seconds after passage of his legislation
making 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages
alongside English. The vote took place at 3am, April 21, 2014
after an all-day vigil by about one hundred supporters.
Dozens of people of all ages and races, many wearing their Easter
finest, gathered in the hall outside Sen. Lesil McGuires office.
The Anchorage Republican and chair of the Senate Rules Committee
had the power to put House Bill 216 on the Senates calendar.
But with end of the legislative session looming, the bills
supporters worried it was getting caught up in last-minute, behind-the-scenes
Lampe drums while Ricky Tagabon (to her right) and Della Cheney
(to her left) sing while Jessica Dominy dances in traditional
Tlingit style in the second floor hallway of the Alaska State
Capitol, April 21, 2014. They were a few of the one hundred
or so supporters of House Bill 216 that gathered on April
21, 2014, and stayed until 3am the next day waiting for the
Senate to pass the bill that makes 20 Alaska Native languages
official state languages alongside English.
The group started their vigil just after noon, singing, dancing,
and playing drums, and talking about why Alaska Native languages
are so important.
Our language is everything. Its
the air we breathe. Its the blood that flows through our
veins, said Lance Twitchell, a professor of Native Languages
at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Twitchell and Liz Medicine Crow embrace after HB 216 passed.
(Photo by Casey Kelly - KTOO)
HB 216 would add the states indigenous languages to a
statute created by a 1998 voter initiative, which made English the
official language of Alaska. While the bill is largely symbolic,
Twitchell said its important to recognize all languages as
Thats all we want is equal value, he said.
And theres nothing wrong with standing up and saying
that. It takes a lot of courage to do that. And it takes a lot of
something else to try and go against that.
Many elders who attended the sit-in recalled being punished
as children for speaking their first languages. Irene Cadiente of
Juneau said her teachers would hit her with a ruler when they caught
her speaking Tlingit.
Sometimes I wonder when my hand hurts, is
it on account of me speaking Tlingit? Cadiente asked. My
hands were rulered. Is that why it hurts? I never forget that.
Cadiente said shes proud that her great grandchildren
are now learning to speak the language.
Heather Burge, a student in the Native Languages program at
UAS, said she didnt understand how HB 216 could become controversial.
We should be at the point where this should be a non-issue,
Burge said. But its still scary to some people, which
is a little disheartening. But hopefully we can get past this.
After the group had been outside McGuires office for about
30 minutes, the senators Chief of Staff Brett Huber announced
the bill would be scheduled for a floor vote. McGuire later made
an appearance of her own.
We just got the bill, so were going as fast as we
can, McGuire said. But its nice to see all of
you. Thank you for coming, and thank you for your passion. I know
you have support.
It was 3 a.m. by the time the measure finally reached the floor.
Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (front row, second from the right)
poses with supporters of House Bill 216, which had passed
moments earlier. The legislation, which he introduced, makes
20 Alaska Native languages official state languages alongside
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, whos Inupiaq, said the bill
would not have made it through the legislature without a groundswell
The elders, the youth, Native and non-Native, Olson
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, took responsibility
for the delay in getting the bill to the floor. Coghill tried to
explain what he hoped to achieve last week when he proposed amending
the bill to create a new category in statute for ceremonial
I thought if you had them in that place of honor you would
aspire to them and honor them, Coghill said. Where if
you put them in this place, theyre more likely to be under
tension that I think would be harder to get to the honor and easy
to get to divisiveness.
Coghill said he was an apologetic no vote. He added that he
would be willing to own up to it if he ends up being proven wrong.
Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, was the other Senator to vote
against the bill.
Jonathan Kreiss-Tompins (center) celebrates by posing for
a selfie with supporters of House Bill 216, his
legislation making 20 Alaska Native languages official state
languages alongside English. The bill had passed the Senate
only moments earlier at 3 a.m., April 21, 2014.
After the bill passed, supporters gathered outside Senate chambers
to embrace each other and shed tears of joy. Twitchell summed up
the feeling with a Tlingit phrase.
We succeeded. We obtained, Twitchell said after
first saying it in Tlingit.
The bill explicitly says the official language designation does
not require the state or local governments to conduct business in
languages other than English. But Twitchell said putting them in
the same part of the law builds momentum for future generations
of Native language speakers.
If Gov. Sean Parnell signs the bill into law, Alaska will become
just the second state after Hawaii to officially recognize indigenous