Bill adding more Indigenous languages to Alaska’s official list heads to governor

Andi Story
Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, speaks during a House Education Committee meeting on May 3, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska lawmakers passed a bill last week that adds several Indigenous languages to Alaska’s official list of languages.

A version of the bill, sponsored by Juneau Rep. Andi Story, was approved by the Senate and then OK’d by the House last week. It was originally passed in the House last year. Now it heads to the governor.

Earlier this year, Story, a Democrat, called the changes included in the bill an important step in recognizing all of the 23 distinct Alaska Native languages in the state. 

“This reflects the goal of sustaining and reinvigorating Alaska Native languages, a concept that goes beyond preservation,” she said. 

The languages that the bill adds to the official list are Cup’ig, Middle Tanana, Lower Tanana and Wetał. Middle and Lower Tanana were previously classified as just one language. 

According to a recent report from the council, there are currently no high-proficiency speakers of the Wetał language. It comes from the Portland Canal region of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia.

The bill also expands and renames the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council. The council advocates to promote the survival and revitalization of Indigenous languages in the state. It will now be called the Council for Alaska Native Language. 

The bill adds two seats to the council and moves it from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Education and Early Development to better emphasize the council’s focus on education. 

In testimony earlier this year, the chairman of the council, X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, said he supports the bill and argued Indigenous languages need to be a bigger priority for the state. Twichell teaches Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast. 

“Alaska Native languages are the oldest living resource in Alaska,” he said. “These languages are older than the trees, they’re older than some of the rocks, and none of us are qualified to make the decision that they should not exist anymore.”

He said it’s crucial that these languages are recognized as the valuable and historic resources that they are.  

“Every single Alaska Native language is sacred and irreplaceable,” he said. “It contains concepts that cannot be translated, it contains things that cannot be replaced, and that give a sense of fulfillment and wholeness and health to Alaska Natives and to non-natives in Alaska.”

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate. In the House, only Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican, voted against it. He argued some of the languages proposed, like Wetał, are not spoken regularly and should not be added to the official list.

A spokesperson for Gov. Mike Dunleavy did not directly respond to questions asking whether the governor plans to sign the bill.

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