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Bill making Native languages 'official' is passed by House committee

Richard Mauer
The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony Tuesday in support of a bill that would add 20 Native languages to English as official languages of Alaska.
Richard Mauer
The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony Tuesday from elder Selina Everson and University of Alaska professor Lance Twitchell in support of a bill that would add 20 Native languages to English as official languages of Alaska. The committee approved the bill and sent it to the House floor.
Richard Mauer
The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony Tuesday from elder Selina Everson and University of Alaska professor Lance Twitchell in support of a bill that would add 20 Native languages to English as official languages of Alaska. The committee approved the bill and sent it to the House floor.
Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- A bill that would add 20 Native languages to Alaska's one-language list of official tongues was passed by a House committee Tuesday, sending it to the Rules Committee and then, likely, to the House floor.

The measure is largely symbolic -- it wouldn't require that anything be said or written in any language other than English -- but its approval Tuesday at the State Affairs Committee was loudly cheered by a room packed with speakers of Tlingit and other Native languages.

"This bill is restorative justice, a step in the right direction," said Tlingit speaker X'unei Lance Twitchell, a professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast. "By elevating Alaska Native languages at the highest level, you will help us combat addiction, depression, suicide, violent crimes and high school dropout rates. You will create a better Alaska by overcoming outdated notions that we are inferior. Have courage and vote yes now and on the floor. We will share with you the joy of overcoming the worst of times."

If the bill passes, it would make Alaska the second state, behind Hawaii, to officially recognize its indigenous languages, Twitchell said.

The bill, House Bill 216, was introduced in January by a bipartisan group of legislators led by Reps. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, from the Democratic minority, and Reps. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, Ben Nageak, D-Barrow and Bob Herron, D-Bethel, who all caucus with the Republican-led majority. Nearly half the House has signed on as sponsors. The bill has already passed the House Community & Regional Affairs Committee, and when it left State Affairs Tuesday, it picked up "do-pass" recommendations from all members present -- four Republicans and a Democrat.

The bill was changed Tuesday to clarify that while 21 languages would be official, only English would be the required language of documents and meetings.

"We worked together to find a way to put intent language in the bill so that it's very clear that the purpose of recognizing our cultures and our languages is met without putting a corresponding obligation, unintended, of an expensive printing in all 21 languages," said Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole. "This does not restrict municipalities or anyone else from conducting bilingual meetings, as happens in some parts, but it also wouldn't require all 21 languages to be spoken at the same meeting, which would not be feasible."

In emotional testimony, Tlingit elder Selina Everson, from Juneau, said the bill would go a long way toward healing the pain inflicted on Alaska Natives by schools that punished students for speaking the languages of their homes and communities.

Sitting at the witness table beside Twitchell, who placed his hand on her shoulder as her voice quavered, Everson, in her 80s and representing the Alaska Native Sisterhood, said she wanted to speak about the impact "of being forbidden your native tongue in your own land."

"There's an elder from Angoon -- he's 90 years old. He breaks down to cry when he remembers how we were forbidden," said Everson. "And my brothers at Sheldon Jackson school, forbidden to speak your tongue on the school grounds -- they used to jump up in the air to say some words in our language. I sure do not want anyone to forbid us to speak our language. Our language is our very being. It's our culture. We were brought up with such respect to each other, to the Tlingit people, the Haida people, the Tsimshian people, the Yup'ik -- the whole state of Alaska with all those different languages being spoken. It would be an honor to be recognized that is our culture -- is our language. It is our very heart and soul."

Twitchell continued on that theme, telling the committee that Alaska Natives "were tortured as children for speaking their languages -- tortured. If you think this type of thing happened a long time ago, then you should know that it happened to people in this very room. Such suffering."

The bill was "more than symbolic," Twitchell told the legislators. "This is historic. History will not remember you for specialized license plates and parking ticket processes. History will remember you for this moment, right here -- what you say and do when we ask you to help us live, to find a brighter future for our languages, cultures and people. If you are worried about racial divisions because you choose to recognize us as equals, then you must understand this: you cannot have multiculturalism in Alaska and monolingualism at the same time. You just get language death."

Paul Berg compared language recognition to the welcome he received as a Vietnam veteran during a special legislative celebration last week. He didn't get a welcome home from the war and was gratified to have his service recognized.

"This is a historic moment for the Legislature," Berg said. "You have an opportunity to right a second great wrong -- the opportunity to restore balance, an opportunity to heal a great open and festering wound."

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 907-500-7388.


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com