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Native language bill passes committee with applause

By Rhonda McBride 11:26 AM February 19, 2014

'It’s not just symbolic, it’s an acceptance'

JUNEAU – When a Native languages bill moved out of the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee on Tuesday, sounds of applause erupted in the room, causing Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux to remark, “You know I’ve never seen clapping after a bill passes from committee. This is a first.”

Applause wasn’t the only sound that filled the room. There were words spoken in Inupiaq, Yup’ik and Tlingit.

The room was also bursting with pride over the renaissance of Native language and culture taking place across the state.

Those who testified said House Bill 216 would help to keep the momentum alive. It would list 20 Native languages as the state’s official language along with English.

Not too many decades ago, there were fears that some of the Native languages spoken in the committee room would completely disappear.

Rep. Bob Herron, a Bethel Democrat whose wife is Yup’ik, said he has been pleasantly surprised about the resilience of Native languages. He said his wife Margaret stopped speaking Yup’ik as a child, because of the pressure to use only English.

“Her parents could speak, but didn’t teach it,” said Herron, who thought the language would be lost to his family until his daughter learned Yup’ik through language programs in the schools.

Herron did take one of the bill’s main sponsors to task for calling the bill “symbolic.”

“It’s not just symbolic, it’s an acceptance,” Herron said.

Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, the Sitka Democrat who introduced the bill, apologized if people thought he was minimizing the importance of the bill.

Kreiss-Tomkins called the bill “profound” and said he referred to it as “symbolic” to convey that the measure was not so much an act of law, but an act of respect. It would not require the state to publish official documents in Native languages, but it would acknowledge their importance.

Rep. Ben Nageak, (D) Barrow, like many of those who testified spoke at length in Inupiaq to make a point that his language has survived. He said he is the only Alaska Native in the legislature fluent in his Native tongue and makes a point of speaking it every day.

Nageak told a story that drew some laughter from those in the room.

He said when he was growing up in Kaktovik, the teacher banned Inupiaq from the class room.

But the teacher, Nageak said, was from “down south where it was warm” and didn’t like to go outside for recess “where it was cold.”

So recess turned out to be an educational experience for Nageak, an English-free zone where he and his friends could speak their language to their heart’s content.

It’s Tlingit, one of the main languages in Southeast Alaska, which elder David Katzeek has kept alive. He addressed the Community and Regional Affairs Committee in Tlingit and said,”I want you to know. You’ve heard the voice of my ancestors through me. I’m not really anything. All I am is a person who is expressing those words that were spoken to me as a child.”

Katzeek said it’s important for young people to know their language, because it helps them to know who they are.

“Every human being needs to know who they are,” he whispered quietly.

Esther Green, in her early years, lived in a sod house on the tundra in Southwest Alaska, where speaking Yup’ik was as natural as breathing.

“Language and culture go together,” Green said. “They cannot be separated. They go together and they journey together.”

The measure now moves forward on its legislative journey to hearings in the House State Affairs Committee.

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