JUNEAU -- The use of an ethnic slur for Japanese people by a House member led to a brief dustup on the floor of the House on Thursday and an apology.
Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, was addressing his support for a bill that would establish a council dedicated to preserving, restoring and revitalizing Native languages when he made reference to the Navajo code talkers of World War II. The Navajos helped win the war in the Pacific by communicating military messages in an unbreakable code based on their own language. He said he understood why the code was so successful because the language, related to the Athabascan spoken in Alaska, is so unique.
"The Japs couldn't break the code and neither could I, until somebody came along -- the Athabascan language is crafted in a very intricate way," Dick said.
His reference came toward the end of a 6-minute monologue in which he spoke about the beauties of Native languages and their abilities to express the world in a sometimes poetic way.
Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau said she was listening to the speech and couldn't believe it when she heard the pejorative. She looked around and saw that Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, was indicating she heard it too. Kerttula asked House Speaker Mike Chenault for a brief time out and walked over to Dick.
"I just said, 'Alan, you know that's a totally inappropriate term and that hurts people,' and Alan just looked at me in shock and said, 'I don't want to hurt anyone.' " Kerttula urged him to apologize.
A few minutes later with the House back in session, Dick took the floor.
"If I said anything in haste earlier that might've been construed as pejorative, I certainly would rescind whatever I had said."
Kerttula said Dick also apologized personally to the only Japanese-American in the House, Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.
In a brief interview, Dick said he had no idea the term had a negative connotation and couldn't understand why he was being asked about it by a reporter, especially because his speech was overwhelmingly about his support for revitalizing Native languages.
"I'm totally bewildered," he said. "I would never hurt anyone."