Native language bill survives end-of-session chaos
It wasn’t how a group of Alaska Natives planned to spend Easter Sunday. But word went out Saturday night that House Bill 216, an Alaska Native language bill, had yet to be scheduled for a vote, and Sunday was the last day of the 90-day session.
HB 216 has had its ups and downs, and almost died in committee. But the bill recently passed the House with a unanimous vote.
At about 12:30 p.m. Sunday, about three dozen Alaska Natives dressed in regalia streamed into the Capitol. Many had just come from church services.
They camped outside Sen. Lesil McGuire’s office singing and drumming.
McGuire is chair of the Senate Rules Committee, a job which gives her the power to schedule bills for a floor vote.
There were reports that the bill had run into resistance from the Senate majority leader, John Coghill.
HB 216 would give 20 Alaska Native languages official state status. While they would not replace English as the state’s legal language, Alaska Native leaders said the bill would help revitalize languages that are in danger of disappearing.
“It will heal the hurt that we carry,” said Selena Everson, a Tlingit elder who remembers a time when Alaska Natives were punished in school for speaking their own language.
“This is home,” said Liz Medicine Crow, president of the First Alaskans Institute. “This is the country of these languages. And if they’re to live, they have to be supported by the people.”
McGuire promised she would schedule a vote, and she said it was never her intention to prevent the bill from coming to the floor.
Over the course of the day, the crowd grew. People sang traditional songs; told traditional stories.
Even Coghill, a Fairbanks Republican, stopped by to visit with some elders in the group. They had a spirited debate about the bill, but failed to change Coghill’s mind about the need for making Alaska Native languages official state languages.
Coghill failed to convince them about his fix for the bill. He wanted to use another mechanism to honor Alaska Native languages, similar to what’s used to honor an Alaskan bird or a flower.
Lance Twitchell, a Tlingit language professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, objected.
“It just make our languages feel like trinkets, like something on a shelf,” Twitchell said. “Because the idea here is not language preservation, it’s language revitalization.”
The bill was finally scheduled Sunday evening, but was not heard on the Senate floor until around 3:00 a.m. Monday. The Natives moved to the hallway outside the Senate chambers and continue to drum and sing.
Once the bill hit the floor, Coghill continued to oppose it, but not because he doesn’t support Alaska Native languages.
“It’s from a pure heart. It’s with no ill motive,” said Coghill, who worries the bill might create potential legal problems, as well as become divisive.
“I think there’s a tension that’s going to be hard to live with,” Coghill said. “Sooner or later, it’s going to come back and we’re going to have to deal with it in a negative way.”
Coghill was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill.
Others, including McGuire, praised HB 216.
“There are very few bills over the last 14 years that have generated so much public involvement. I just want to point that out,” McGuire said.
McGuire noted that the crowd outside her office got her attention.
Sen. Donny Olson, an Inupiat from Golovin, also weighed in. He said the bill does not place any obligations on the state, impact voting laws or force schools to teach Alaska Native languages.
“It has generated a huge amount of ground swell, as you can see by the people who are standing here in the galleries,” said Olson, pointing to people sitting in the two Senate galleries.
Sen. Fred Dyson agreed.
“I was astonished by the support and depth of feeling from the people who testified in committee,” Dyson said.
“This is a small way to say, ‘Hey, things haven’t always been good in the past, but here’s one way we’re showing that we respect the languages of Alaska’s indigenous peoples,'” he said.
The vote was 18-2, with a round of applause from Alaska Natives seated in the gallery.
Many had waited 15 hours for this moment – others, a lifetime.
“All I could hear was my heart pounding in my chest,” Twitchell said. “Just because it was an incredible moment, and we’re going to look back on this and we’re going to say that’s the day a lot of us turned the corner with our languages.”
The bill now goes on to Gov. Sean Parnell for his signature.
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