House calls for action to save Alaska Native languages on the brink

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, during her first day as a legislator on March 9, 2018. (Alaska Legislature)

The Alaska House passed a resolution today calling for the governor to declare the state’s 20 Alaska Native languages in a state of emergency at risk of being lost forever.

House Concurrent Resolution 19, authored by Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz, urges the governor to declare a linguistic emergency for Alaska Native languages and enact policies that help and encourage their preservation. The resolution passed the House 34-4 and now heads to the Senate.

The resolution was particularly important for Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat who was recently sworn in. She spoke of the impact that a Yup’ik immersion school, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, has had on reconnecting young people in Yukon-Kuskokwim region with their Alaska Native culture and heritage.

“We cannot ignore the role institutions played in seeking to diminish Alaska’s Native languages,” she said. “A lot of state resources have been spent to diminish Alaska Native languages and we have a responsibility to be a part of bringing it back. This resolution serves as our body’s intention to protect the fragile, but critical resource of both culture and language of Alaska’s first people, which enriches the lives of all Alaskans.”

The resolution references the importance of immersion programs and other programs that allow Alaska Natives to teach in their own languages, but doesn’t set out to prescribe the measures Gov. Bill Walker should take.

Instead, it directs the governor and the Legislature to work with the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council, which was created by the Legislature in 2012, and Alaska Native tribes and organizations to collaborate on efforts to promote the languages. A report by the group earlier this year urges the state to promote self-determination in the preservation of languages, promoting regular use of Alaska Native languages and Alaska Native language immersion programs.

In 2014, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill that officially added 20 Alaska Native languages to the state’s official languages, putting them on par with English.

A real threat

The Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council issued a report earlier this year that most of Alaska Native languages are predicted to become extinct or dormant by the end of this century.

The risk of losing Alaska Native languages isn’t academic, either, but is already a reality.

The last fluent speaker of Eyak, Marie Smith-Jones, died in 2008. Jones worked with former UAF linguistics professor Michael Krauss to produce a dictionary and grammar. She had been the last fluent speaker of Eyak for 17 years before her death.

In a 2016 interview, Krauss recalled that language bearers like Smith-Jones were well aware of the looming fate of their language.

“They understood perfectly well the whole thing and that’s why they worked so well with an impossible bastard like me,” he said.

With Smith-Jones’ death, Eyak became the first Alaska Native language to be considered extinct, but thanks to her efforts and the efforts others, the Eyak language has undergone a revival in recent years.

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