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Alaska Native Languages Bill Clears Final House Committee

By | April 1, 2014

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (in suit coat and blue shirt) and supporters of House Bill 216 gather in a Capitol hallway for a group photo to celebrate passage of the bill through the House State Affairs Committee. The bill would symbolically make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages alongside English. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (in suit coat and blue shirt) and supporters of House Bill 216 gather in a Capitol hallway for a group photo to celebrate passage of the bill through the House State Affairs Committee. The bill would symbolically make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages alongside English. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

A bill that would symbolically make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages is heading to the House floor for a vote.

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The House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday unanimously passed House Bill 216 from Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, less than a week after some Republicans on the panel raised concerns about the bill’s potential ramifications.

Tlingit elder Selina Everson teared up during public testimony.

“Our language is our very being. It’s our culture,” Everson said. “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 the different languages being spoken. It would be an honor to be recognized.”

Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska map by Michael Krauss. (courtesy of the Alaska Native Language Center)

Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska map by Michael Krauss. (courtesy of the Alaska Native Language Center)

While English is the only official language of Alaska, the state Supreme Court in 2007 struck down part of a 1998 voter initiativerequiring it to be used for all government business.

Last week, Republican Reps. Doug Isaacson of North Pole, and Lynn Gattis and Wes Keller of Wasilla, raised concerns that HB 216 would be misinterpreted by future legislatures or the courts. They worried that could lead to unintended consequences, such as ballots or legislation having to be printed in every official language.

A new version of the bill adopted at Tuesday’s hearing makes clear that the official designation for Alaska Native languages is only symbolic. But Lance Twitchell, a Native languages professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, said the bill means more than that to supporters.

“This is more than symbolic. This is historic,” Twitchell said.

He went on to reference two bills the state affairs committee passed last week while Isaacson, Gattis and Keller struggled with the idea of making Alaska Native languages official languages.

“History will not remember you for specialized license plates and parking ticket processes,” Twitchell said. “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.”

HB 216 must still be scheduled for a vote on the House floor. The bill has not been considered by the state Senate.

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