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Lawmakers propose adding Alaska Native languages to list of official tongues

The state of Alaska has long fought against tribal sovereignty, but the state’s many Native languages will be officially recognized by the state -- a status now enjoyed only by English -- if a bipartisan quartet of lawmakers gets its way.

Republican Charisse Millett and fellow state representatives Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Benjamin Nageak and Bryce Edgmon, all Democrats, say they’re pre-filing an Alaska Native language bill that seeks to add the state’s 20 indigenous languages to Alaska’s official-language list.

The move would be a symbolic gesture acknowledging the importance of the state’s aboriginal tongues and Alaska’s heritage, said a press statement. It would provide a spark to efforts around the state to preserve Native languages.

“Passage of the bill will not require public signs and documents to be printed in multiple languages, and it will create no additional costs to the state,” the statement said. The statement did not specify what, if any, accommodations the state would legally be required to make if it were to recognize official languages other than English.

Made official if the bill passes would be Iñupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax̂, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.

Ben Nageak said his generation grew up speaking Iñupiaq in Barrow, but then failed to pass the language on to their children.

“We, as prime co-sponsors, feel that this bill is a start in making sure that future generations of Native speakers multiply until someday all of our Native people will once again be totally fluent in their own Native tongue with the added capability of speaking the English language,” Nageak said. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com