Indigenous activists are extending an invitation to Alaska's new governor, Mike Dunleavy, to talk about Alaska Native language and education policy following comments he made on the campaign trail.

Shortly before Dunleavy's election, a video from a campaign event began circulating on social media. In it, Dunleavy makes a statement about language in Alaska.

"English is our language, and yes I would be about making English Alaska's official language. It should be. We have a number of Native languages in the state of Alaska, which I think we should respect, but the language that we all communicate with is English, and English should be our language as a state," he said.

A spokesperson for Dunleavy said in an emailed statement Friday that the governor, as an educator in rural Alaska for over 20 years, has a strong respect for Native languages.

"The question that then-candidate Dunleavy received dealt with whether he believed English should be Alaska’s official language – which is the case under current state law (which passed by a vote of the people)," Matthew Shuckerow, the governor's press secretary, wrote. "While Alaskans speak in many languages, English is the predominant language used in Alaska for the businesses, services, programs and functions of the government. Because of this, the Governor supports the existing law, which requires official state government functions and actions be conducted in English."

Alaska Native organizations see the governor's comments as an opportunity to educate all Alaskans, including the governor, about Native languages.

"English has never been the primary language in Alaska, it's been all of our Native languages," Kendra Kloster, executive director of Native Peoples Action, said. "I think that it's really important to understand that our languages are recognized in Alaska."

English is one of the state's 21 official languages. In 2014, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill also recognizing Alaska's 20 Native languages as official.

Dunleavy and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer were both serving in the Senate at the time and both voted in favor of the measures. Dunleavy co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate.

Kloster and other members of Alaska Native organizations say they were particularly concerned by another exchange recorded in the campaign video, when a member of the audience asks Dunleavy if he thinks that some villages will have to go to more regional high schools. 

"I think that's probably going to be the end result in your hubs like Barrow, Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel," Dunleavy said. "I think that's going to be the end result."

During his inauguration speech in December, Dunleavy addressed what he said were misconceptions about his stance on rural schools:

"During my campaign, there was a misunderstanding that I had said something about closing schools in rural Alaska. Nothing could be further from the truth. My kids went to schools in rural Alaska, my wife went to school in rural Alaska, I've taught in rural Alaska. If anything, I want to strengthen the educational system in rural Alaska."

However, the initial comments echoed a painful part of Alaska history that activists feel lacks awareness.

"It sounded like talking about the inevitability of our school system needing to move to regional boarding schools," said Ayyu Qassataq, vice president and indigenous operations director of First Alaskans Institute. "I think that opens an important conversation about understanding what the history of boarding schools has been in our state. It's unfortunately an era that not many Alaskans are deeply familiar with, but the practices that happened and the trauma that was inflicted upon Alaska Native people during that era continues to have impacts on our community today."

In the 1930s and 1940s, orphanages and government-run "day" schools in Alaska were replaced by large boarding schools, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to research by the University of Alaska Anchorage, children as young as 5 years old were taken from their homes and sent away.

At the regional schools, they were forced to shower with bars of lye soap and matrons scrubbed their skin forcefully, according to the report. Some children were referred to only by their assigned number and students were punished for speaking their Native languages. Some were spanked, whipped with belts, multi-tailed whips, or had their knuckles hit by nightsticks and rulers.

"This is history that lives and breathes with us today," Qassataq said. "You know, my aunties and uncles attended boarding schools. We have grandparents who attended boarding schools and within the boarding school experience that they've had, as very small children, creating a foundation for the parents and grandparents that they would become. They were really traumatizing experiences that happened to our people, including forcing English on our people when we had these really rich languages that helped us to understand our world."

Qassataq says lawmakers should be aware of the history before making decisions on rural education.

"I would not say that I'm not in support of regional boarding schools. What I am in support of is our people having an opportunity and space to speak of what our experiences have been with the boarding schools and to make space for all Alaskans to better understand that era and the ramifications that we still feel today and that our people who are most impacted by decisions like moving to regional boarding schools are the ones who are leading those conversations and making the decision to move on that path," she said.

On the topic of education, Meyer suggests in the campaign video that students be required to learn English before attending public school in Alaska. 

"I talked about this a little bit when I talked about education and the frustration that teachers have. Well, one of their frustrations is that there's 95 different languages of kids coming into the school. So you know, before these people send their kids to our school, that we pay for, they need to learn and promote learning English, before you send your kid to our school. Because we can't, we shouldn't have to have a teacher hired just to help two or three kids who haven't learned the English language yet. So, that should be a requirement and yes this is a an English-speaking state," he said. 

Rather than a frustration, Kloster says she sees Alaska's linguistic diversity as a strength.

"I think that it's a great opportunity to really be learning from each other," she said. "Anchorage has always been touted as one of the most diverse places in the nation, we have some of the most diverse schools in the nation, where I think that's a great opportunity to partner and to learn from our students and our teachers to be learning together and I think that it's more beneficial for us, really."

Kloster says Dunleavy and Meyer's comments have now become part of a larger conversation in the indigenous community, one she hopes to continue with the new administration. 

"I would like to have those conversations on, you know, what we can do to really uplift our languages and what we can do to uplift our education system," she said. "The best thing we can do is to work together, work with our communities and our tribes, and hopefully that we can do more of that and make it better here."

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