Alaska Native language speakers require justice, not symbolism

Our state government has sent two very different messages to Alaska Natives. Just a few weeks ago, in an orchestrated bit of political theater, Gov. Parnell finally signed HB 216 into law at the 2014 convention for the Alaska Federation of Natives. That law finally designated 20 Native languages as official languages of the state of Alaska in addition to English.

But just a month earlier, a federal judge had to force the state to provide Yup'ik and Gwich'in translations of voting materials so that people whose primary language is not English would not be excluded from this critical right of citizenship. The state fought having to do this in a 9-day trial.

And then there's the matter of the little-discussed second paragraph of HB 216, which declares that the inclusion of the 20 Native languages still "does not require or place a duty or responsibility on the state or a municipal government to print a document or record or conduct a meeting, assembly, or other government activity in any language other than English." That paragraph relegates the new law to mere symbolism, as if a history of linguistic exclusion has had no lasting effect on the way this state treats the speakers of these 20 native languages.

Alaska's English-only bias has pervaded all three branches of government, and it needs to be ferreted out. Native Alaskans who do not speak English as their primary language have been -- and still are -- alienated from the functions of government beyond the just the voting booth.

Let's take the Alaska Court System, for example. According to its own administrative rules, the court system is responsible for providing translators at arraignment hearings, the first appearance in court for people charged with a crime. Folks have to make important decisions at an arraignment, like what kind of plea to enter -- not guilty, no contest or guilty -- and whether they want a lawyer. If they are charged with a misdemeanor and decide to plead guilty or no contest, the court may impose a sentence right then and there. If they plead not guilty, the court sets bail conditions that determine whether they wait for trial in jail or out of custody.

Given the importance of understanding these proceedings, you might think that the court system would have interpreters on staff -- or at least under contract -- at all of the hub courthouses, particularly those in places like in Bethel, a court that serves more than 50 Native villages. How many interpreters are employed by the Bethel court?


Instead of having an interpreter present at arraignments, Native Alaskans are encouraged just to get by with whatever English they have, even if they don't really understand what's going on. Here, for example, is part of a transcript from the arraignment of a young woman, "Ms. J," in the Bethel District Court. Like many who appear in the Bethel court, Ms. J grew up in a village speaking Yup'ik. She learned English at school but no one spoke it outside of the classroom. She had no prior experience with the criminal justice system.

Although less than a mile separates the Bethel jail from the courthouse, Ms. J was not transported to the court. Instead, she was arraigned over a video link that often made it difficult to hear the judge. Prior to the arraignment, a guard played a video advising the collected inmates of their constitutional rights. The video was in English only.

Before the arraignment, Ms. J had been handed a paper that included the words "no bail." This paper signified that she had been held on a "no bail" status overnight until her arraignment the next day. Ms. J misunderstood the paper to mean that she would not be granted bail and would have to wait for her trial in jail.

After the video ended, the judge began to address each inmate through the video feed. When the judge got to Ms. J, she told him that she wanted to plead no contest. The judge asked Ms. J if she understood that she was waiving her right to an attorney if she pled no contest. When her responses indicated a difficulty understanding his questions, the judge simply pressed on:
Judge: Do you understand what an attorney can do to help you?
Ms. J: [No response for 6 seconds] Do I need attorney if plead no contest? [sic]
Judge: If you plead no contest you’re giving up the right to have an attorney to help you. So if you want an attorney to help you, you would not plead no contest. Do you know what you want to do this morning.
Ms. J: [No response for 9 seconds] What do I get or what do happen if I do no contest. [sic]
Judge: That is something you can talk to the Court about after you plead no contest or something you can talk to your attorney about if you want an attorney to help you.
Ms. J: [No response for 21 seconds]
Judge: Are you having a difficult time making up your mind?
Ms. J: [No response for 12 seconds]
Judge: (Ms. J), do you know what you want to do?
Ms. J: [No response for 26 seconds] What are my chances?
Judge: I’m sorry.
Ms. J: What are my chances if I take no contest?
Judge: If you plead not guilty, we can talk about an attorney, and you can talk to the attorney and the case will be continued until a date in February.
Ms. J: Does that mean that I, that I stay in jail or...?
Judge: We don’t know that yet. We would have to discuss bail that the court does not have any information on bail. So we don’t know.

Still believing that she would have to wait for her trial in jail, Ms. J entered a no contest plea to a misdemeanor offense even though she didn't think she was guilty. There was no signal to her that help was available, no interpreter standing by in the jail or courtroom, not even a sign informing her that an interpreter was available or a video explaining her constitutional rights in her own language -- the primary dialect of the region.

Ms. J's situation -- her language-driven confusion in the face of rules and statutes -- is one that repeats itself all over the state in courtrooms and government offices. That's why we can't mark the signing of HB 261 with a collective pat on the back for a job well done and assume we've fixed all of the bad policies and practices our government has developed from having English as the only state language for so many years. It's time not to settle for symbolism.

Marcelle McDannel has been working in criminal law for almost two decades, both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She currently practices criminal defense statewide. Contact her at marcelle(at)alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Marcelle McDannel

Marcelle McDannel is a criminal defense lawyer, animal lover, and passionate defender of bad dogs.