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House passes Native languages bill

JUNEAU (AP) — The Alaska House has passed a bill that would symbolically recognize 20 Alaska Native languages as official languages of the state.

The House passed the bill 38-0 on Wednesday, and now it moves to the Senate, where the State Affairs Committee was scheduled to hear it Thursday, KTOO reported.

The bill must be passed by the full Senate before lawmakers adjourn. The session is scheduled to end Sunday, but Senate leadership has indicated they want to end Saturday because Sunday is Easter.

Supporters in the gallery applauded after the bill passed the House, and some lawmakers pounded their desks in approval.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, said she regrets never asking her Inupiaq grandmother to teach her the language.

"She told me stories of fish camps, and told me stories of moving from town to town to live a subsistence lifestyle, picking berries," Millett said. "But I never learned the language."

By recognizing the state’s original languages, Millett said she hopes it will empower young people and help others overcome the shame that her grandmother and mother felt about being Alaska Native.

"To engage in conversation, learn the language, the heritage of their elders. Learn the stories of what Alaska was, so they know how to make Alaska a better place," she said.

Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, is the only fluent speaker of an Alaska Native language currently serving in the Legislature.

Nageak delivered about half of his remarks in Inupiaq, and noted the bill recognizes that indigenous languages have been spoken in Alaska since before European contact.

"Most of our languages are still alive, and we need to continue to make sure that those languages thrive and survive," he said.

Some Republican members of the House State Affairs Committee questioned the intent of House Bill 216 when it was heard last month. Backers added language to clarify that it does not require governments to conduct business in languages other than English, currently the only official state language.

Even though the action is only symbolic, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said it’s still important to honor Alaska Native languages.

The bill gives symbolic status to Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Han, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.

The last fluent Eyak speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008.

"There are several other languages that are on the brink, have just a handful of fluent speakers left in Alaska," said Kreiss-Tomkins, the bill’s primary sponsor.