Public testifies, asking Alaska legislature to support declaring Alaska Native language emergency

Mar 7, 2018

The Alaska House Community and Regional Affairs Committee heard public testimony Tuesday about a resolution to urge Governor Walker to issue an administrative order recognizing the decline of Alaska Native languages as an emergency. 

Xh’unei Lance Twitchell testifies on HCR 19.

The Alaska House Community and Regional Affairs committee heard public testimony this week about House Concurrent Resolution 19, a resolution to urge Governor Walker to issue an administrative order recognizing a linguistic emergency for Alaska Native languages.

The resolution’s primary sponsor, Rep. Dan Ortiz of Ketchikan opened the Tuesday morning hearing with a statement on the resolution. He cited a warning by the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council, a council the state created in 2012, that most Alaska Native languages are predicted to become extinct or dormant by the end of the century.

“The loss of language represents the loss of a critical piece of our history, culture and way of life. I respectfully request the legislature join me in support of ANLPAC and the languages that represent intergenerational knowledge,” Ortiz concluded.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham is a co-sponsor on the bill.

As about 10 people of different tribal affiliations and backgrounds spoke at the hearing, colonialism as a cause of language decline was a key theme.  Xh’unei Lance Twitchell, who teaches Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast, related the stories he heard from elders about punishments they received for speaking their native languages at schools in past decades, when native languages were disallowed from public schools.

“It is a heavy thing what happened on our ancestral land. It really came upon us. This wonderful thing that was born on our land, our language, at one time they did not want it. They tried truly to kill all the languages that belonged to the children of the lands of Alaska. How horribly we suffered at that time. How horribly we suffer today…It will no longer be this way... My grandchildren, they are not going to know lonesomeness for our language” Twitchell said. He spoke first in Tglingit and then in English.

As the meeting’s allotted time was entirely filled by testimony, committee member input was limited to asking questions of those who testified. Committee member, Rep. Dan Saddler of Eagle River, pressed several who testified about what specific government involvement in language preservation they hope to see in the future.

Twitchell, who is an ANLPAC council member, summarized ANLPAC recommendations for state action. Those recommendations included state sponsored native language learning programs for children and adults, a comprehensive survey of native languages and speakers in the state and placement of native language in public spaces.

All those who testified on Tuesday spoke in favor of the resolution.

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