20 Alaska Native Languages Now Official State Languages

Twenty Alaska Native languages are now official languages in the State of Alaska — after Governor Sean Parnell signed House Bill 216 into law Thursday morning at the Alaska Federation of Native conference.

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In a packed room at the Dena’ina 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. But it was the assembled speakers, teachers, and students of nearly all of those 20 Alaska Native languages who spoke to the vitality of what the recognition means.

Lance Xh’unei Twitchell, an associate professor at Univerity of Alaska Southeast, began in Tlingit before switching to English.

“There is no such thing as language superiority, just as there is no such thing as racial superiority,” Twitchell said. “That is what we’re saying today.”

Ceremonial pens used to sign the bill into law were given out to the assembled elders—with each taking a moment to speak to what the new law means for them, their language, and their communities.

Selina “Ka’seix” Everson — a Tlingit speaker from Juneau originally from Angoon — received the first pen, blushing as she admitted to being the oldest elder in the room and marveling at how much change she’s seen since the days when she says she was punished for speaking her

“My Tlingit … is now the official state language. One of them. And again, you don’t know how thankful we are. We are rising as one,” Everson said.

Nome’s Bernadette “Yaayuk” Alvanna-Stimpfle says the new law finally put speakers of all languages on an even field.

“…And that means, the English speakers are now equal with Inupiaq speakers,” Alvanna-Stimpfle said, speaking Inupiaq.

As each of the assembled elders spoke, the speakers 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.

Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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