GOP senators once again refuse to call Alaska Native languages loss an ’emergency’ as resolution nears vote

Republican Sens. Anna MacKinnon and Peter Micciche participate in a Senate Finance Committee meeting. (Photo by Alaska Senate Majority/Flickr)

Update: House Concurrent Resolution 19 passed the Senate unanimously on Wednesday after the chamber adopted–without objection–an amendment by Sen. Berta Gardner that adds back in the “emergency” status to the bill. It still leaves out the call for Gov. Bill Walker to issue an administrative order, as per Senate President Pete Kelly’s amendment, but is a significant reversal of course. (We’ll have a bigger breakdown on the vote soon).

Senate Republicans were given another opportunity to call the loss of Alaska Native languages an “emergency” on Wednesday morning, but once again refused. The word “emergency,” they said, should be reserved for issues of life or death.

House Concurrent Resolution 19, which calls on the governor to take action to prevent further losses of Alaska Native languages, was returned to the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday after being scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor.

The committee met this morning where it took up two amendments, including one by Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, that would revert the language in the resolution to call the state of Alaska Native languages an “emergency.” The Senate State Affairs Committee had changed it to “urgent need.”

“When I first heard this bill in committee I thought using the word ’emergency’ was a little strong and ‘urgency’ came through OK to me,” she said. “But the more I thought about it I changed my mind.”

Gardner explained her personal experience studying linguistics and an experience talking with her legislative aide who retold a story about how in Gambia uncles and auntsaunt referred to as fathers and mothers to signal their shared responsibility in raising children.

“We have a little bit of that in our culture but in their language it defines it very, very clearly,” she said. “When you lose language, you really do lose culture. That’s why it’s an emergency. You lose a way of seeing the world when your language changes.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, took issue with the use of the term “emergency.”

“I think this recognizes the urgency or the immediate need to take action, but when I think of ’emergency’ I think of immediate life, safety–life-or-death–situations where we need to mobilize today,” he said. “I think this needs to be a comprehensive plan on mobilizing for documenting those existing languages.”

Micciche conceded that the difference between “urgency” and “emergency” weren’t major for him, but said the change could make it difficult for the resolution to reach a vote.

Gardner said for many newer Alaskans, the difference might not be that big of an issue, but for Alaska Natives it is.

“What we’re discussing is degrees of importance. For those of us who are relatively new to the state, it has little impact on our lives but for some Alaskans whose history in this state is thousands of years through their family it makes a huge difference. For them it is critically important,” Gardner replied. “Urgency, emergency? To you and me? OK, fine. But we’re talking about really potentially an ongoing death of a culture. For some people for whom we’re talking about their family and their history and traditions, it is a death.”

Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, then jumped in also taking issue with the use of the word emergency.

“Emergency isn’t just a term of art, it’s a statutory thing. It’s a constitutional thing. The governor has the right to declare an emergency. An emergency means certain things. It means the National Guard or FEMA or applying for federal funds,” he said.

Kelly noted that he doesn’t think the government should shy away from finding federal funds to help with the preservation of Alaska Native languages, but said “there has to be some level of commitment by the community itself.”

The amendment was voted down on a 4-1 vote with Sens. Kelly, Micciche, Anna MacKinnon and Kevin Meyer casting votes against it. Gardner was the lone vote in support of the change.

The other amendment, which was the chief reason for returning the resolution to the Senate Rules Committee, was put forward by Senate President Pete Kelly to remove the specific call for the governor to issue an administrative order. Kelly said he was concerned that calling for specific action is a separation of powers issue.

The amended resolution has been scheduled for today’s Senate calendar.

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2 Comments on "GOP senators once again refuse to call Alaska Native languages loss an ’emergency’ as resolution nears vote"

  1. Bunch of racist and total haters! I grew up in rural Alaska, and although I can speak and understand quite a bit of Yup’ik, I can count on one hand how many people I know around my age that can that can speak (but probably not write) it fluently. AND Yup’ik is just one of 20 Alaska Native languages. This is defiantly an emergency!
    Berta’s staffer is 100% correct about the meaning of words. There are so many single words in the Yup’ik language that would take you 30 words to explain it in English, especially when it comes to family units, subsistence harvest, sharing your harvest and then importance of community.
    Pete Kelly and others need to URGENTLY need to get a clue and focus their time-wasting efforts on passing the freakin budget!

  2. Yeah, the Senate ultimately passes the resolution unanimously a few hours after this report, but keep the headline anyway as long as possible. You know, #responsiblejournalism

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