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Passionate believers in Native heritage prod legislators to recognize languages

Dermot Cole

JUNEAU -- After 15 hours in the state Capitol, a determined group of Alaska Natives won a legislative victory when a bill recognizing their languages and heritage won final approval by the Alaska Legislature.

The Alaska House of Representatives approved the language bill 38-0 last week, but it had been bottled up in the Senate until 3 a.m. Monday. The measure identifies a host of Native languages as official, though the bill does not require the state to print ballots or take any other official action in the varied aboriginal tongues of Alaska.

The Senate approved the bill 18-2, with Fairbanks Sens. Pete Kelly and John Coghill voting no. The citizen lobbyists in the galleries applauded when the vote was recorded, a clear sign that the bill was more than a gesture. It was an important symbol.

The rally for the bill began when nearly 100 people converged on the Capitol, where there was  drumming and speeches starting about noon Sunday. It was an enthusiastic crowd of children, parents and grandparents who gathered to show their respect for languages and tradition.

The message was that languages, even those that are endangered, help define a culture and people. The language lobbyists spent the afternoon, evening and early morning talking to whoever would listen and showing by their presence how important the bill was.

On this day, they were the most effective and influential lobbyists in Alaska.

It was a polite but intense campaign to get the state Senate to act on the bill on what should have been the last day of the 90-day session. The Legislature adjourned at about 4 a.m. Monday, planning to resume work Monday afternoon on several key bills.

After the demonstration, the supporters of the language bill stayed in the Capitol, either in the hallways or the galleries of the Senate. They were insistent on the need to bring up House Bill 216 for a vote.

As the day wore on, they continued their vigil, which made it impossible for senators to forget about the measure to symbolically recognized 20 Native languages as official languages of the state.

The languages are Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Han, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.

Sitka Democratic Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins sponsored the measure. He said that the presence of the dedicated group throughout the day was vital in securing final passage of the bill.

"The bill proposal may be symbolic. It is, however, an important step in recognizing the living, breathing, Alaska Native languages of the state of Alaska, which continue to grow into daily use by many speakers around the state who both practice and teach as has been done for millennia prior to statehood," Kreiss-Tomkins wrote.