Alaska News

Parnell signs Native language bill in emotional ceremony at AFN convention

For the first time in their lives, as Gov. Sean Parnell, state legislators, tribal leaders and an overflow crowd looked on, Alaska Native people one by one took the microphone Thursday to speak in their Native language -- as an official state language.

They spoke in Inupiaq and Yup'ik, Tlingit and Haida, Alutiiq and Koyukon, Tsimshian and Dena'ina. A 15-year-old from Cordova spoke in Eyak, a language that some feared might die.There were words of thanks in almost all of the 20 Alaska Native languages now recognized as official in House Bill 216 as well as stories of earlier oppressive days, when children's hands were slapped and mouths were taped for speaking the only language they knew.

Parnell signed the bill into law Thursday in an emotional ceremony in a side room at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Before that legislation, Alaska had just one "official" language: English.

AFN's three-day convention -- the biggest Alaska Native gathering of the year – started Thursday morning at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center. The conference attracts as many as 5,000 people from Barrow to Kodiak, Nome to Sitka. It's a huge economic driver for Anchorage, a chance for politicians to mingle and candidates to prowl for votes, a reunion for families and friends and colleagues. It's a multidimensional event, with a large Alaska Native art show and two nights of song and dance performances.

Thursday's agenda included reports from top Obama administration officials and from Native leaders on innovative programs, including a lauded Southcentral Foundation initiative that aims to heal the damage of abuse and neglect. Parnell, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and Fairbanks Mayor John Eberhart all gave speeches. There were work sessions on public safety, climate change, education and "food security," which dealt with subsistence harvests and a push for tribal co-management.

The theme this year is "Rise as One," a call for action and specifically a call to vote. AFN co-chairwoman Ana Hoffman of Bethel told attendees they could walk over to Anchorage City Hall and vote early no matter where they are from. Elders could send someone to collect a ballot, she said.

The language bill signing happened away from the main stage, a disappointment to Parnell and some of the bill's backers. AFN moved the event to the smaller venue after concerns that the ceremony would take too long, and after some on AFN's board said they thought that Parnell, who is running for re-election, was using the event for political gain. Parnell said the event had long been planned for AFN and that the organization initially was supportive.


For the signing, the mood was jubilant. A couple of hundred people packed into the second-floor meeting room and spilled into the hall.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said he decided to push the measure a year and a half ago over coffee with Lance Twitchell, an assistant professor of Alaska Native languages in Juneau whose Native name is Xh'unei.

Twitchell said there's evidence that restoring Native language brings deep benefit. A study of indigenous people in British Columbia found that when at least half those in a village are proficient in their Native language, "the suicide rate drops to zero."

"That's what we're talking about here, standing together," Twitchell, who is part Tlingit, Haida and Yup'ik, told the crowd.

Calling a moose the same name that ancestors used thousands of years ago connects people to the land and to their culture in a way that changes lives, he said later.

In Southeast, elders point to the trees clinging to the sides of steep mountains and explain that they don't fall away because of the roots underground grabbing hold, Twitchell said.

"That's what our culture is doing," he said.

When the Native language speakers passed the microphone around, some veered from what had been a prepared script in which each were to say their language was now official. Some talked about when their language was forbidden, and how they love to speak it now.

Bernadette "Yaayuk" Alvanna-Stimpfle, a member of the state Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council, spoke in Inupiaq.

"That means the English speakers are now even with the Inupiaq speakers," she said, sparking laughs.

Some spoke in long streams with only an occasional bit of English. "Sean Parnell." "Governor." "Official."

Delores Churchill, an elder from Ketchikan and council member who is also a master weaver, spoke in Haida, then paused.

"I don't know how to say 'legal!' " she said. "Haida is now legal. Thank you very much."

After the ceremony, Twitchell talked about how Native languages rely on a different way of thinking, a bigger view of the world.

"Elders would tell us 'haa dachxh'anx'i saanni kagei aya,' " he said, speaking in Tlingit. "This is for our little grandchildren. ... When you use that phrase, it means this is for those who haven't even come yet.

"So we are trying to look 100 years in the future. You know what, these languages are going to be here forever."

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.