Mike Dingman: Let's recognize our Native languages

commentBy MIKE DINGMANJanuary 28, 2014 

Hello. Aang. Cama-i. Natesiin. Wáa sá iyatee. Neenjit dôonch'yàa. Dzaanh nezoonh. Do'eent'aa.

All of these are common greetings in Alaska's many different Native languages.

Hopefully, they will soon all be official languages of the State of Alaska.

The second session of the 28th Alaska State Legislature is underway, and as usual this year, we have a litany of meaningless bills to occupy the legislators ninety days.

For instance, under a bill introduced by Rep. Pete Higgins, we will now be protected from drones! (This is a good thing because those random drone attacks on Alaska have been such a problem of late.)

Other bills would require the use of headlights while driving, allow golf courses to serve hard alcohol as well as beer and wine, and one bill would increase the stipend for boarding school students (boarding school students get stipends?).

Among these bills stands one that has a significant amount of meaning to the state, which is likely not to get as much attention as it deserves -- The Alaska Native Languages Act.

Since the passage of a 1998 ballot measure, English has been the official language of the State of Alaska. This an act of arrogance that is offensive to Alaska Native peoples, particularly those who are fighting a daily battle to keep their heritage, cultures and languages alive in a more homogenized world.

Alaska is the home of many different Native cultures, which, too often, get lumped into one category -- "Native."

There are eight main Native cultures that call Alaska home, comprising many different languages which vary between the different tribes and regions.

House Bill 216 will correct this failure to recognize Alaska's indigenous roots and finally recognize the many important languages of Alaska.

This bill, sponsored in the State House by Reps. Kreiss-Tompkins, Millett, Edgemon and Nageak, would recognize twenty languages along with English as the "official languages" of Alaska.

The term "Alaska Native" includes the Yup'ik, Inupiaq, Aleut, Athabascan, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples. There is a lot of diversity within those seven cultures. Some have settled in the coastal regions while others have settled in interior regions.

To lump all of these cultures together and assume that they are all similar is completely wrong and ignores the distinct cultures, lifestyle and history of the different groups.

This difference was completely overlooked by the federal government during the evacuation and internment of the Alaska Natives during World War II.

The United States moved people from the Bering Strait to Southeast Alaska -- an entirely different climate and hundreds of miles from their home. They were put in temporary villages called "duration villages" lacking electricity, restroom facilities or any plumbing. Because they were put in conditions without the medical facilities they needed, illness was rampant and many died from their ailments.

This is the most extreme example of the U.S.'s failure to understand and recognize the unique peoples of Alaska and their needs, but it is certainly not isolated. There are many different instances when the federal government has tied up progress for Alaska Natives because they feel they know best how the land should be utilized.

While we focus on Alaska being treated like a colony by the federal government, and that's true, what is also true is the Alaska Natives, their culture and history, get forgotten in our rush to modernization, resource extraction and homogenization.

Many people criticize Alaska Natives for wanting to live a life similar to the one their ancestors lived; we look at them funny when they speak in their Native tongues and dismiss them as drunks or worse.

They deserve better.

The Native Languages Act won't change anything immediately. It's not a silver bullet that will cure all the ails overnight. However, it will bring some recognition to some people who deserve it, the caretakers of the land that we are all so blessed to enjoy.

This legislation does not only benefit those people whose languages will finally get the recognition they deserve, but also the rest of those in the state that will hopefully gain a better sense of Alaska's history and culture through this acknowledgment.

When looking over the legislation that this Legislature will take on during the session, don't dismiss this one. It holds far more meaning for Alaska's first peoples.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.

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