Spoken token: House Bill 26 makes three dead languages into ‘official’ languages of the state

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A bill by Democrat Rep. Andi Story of Juneau adds three more Native languages to the list of official languages of Alaska.

All three of them are dead languages.

House Bill 26, set for a third reading and vote on Monday in the Alaska Senate, would also change the name of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council to the shorter “Council for Alaska Native Languages.”

“This change would shorten the Council’s name while emphasizing the Council’s broader focus, which includes more than just language preservation, but involves language restoration. The statute establishing the Council, AS 44.33.520, states the purpose of the Council is to recommend ‘the establishment or reorganization of programs to support the preservation, restoration, and revitalization of Alaska Native languages.'”

The bill would also increase membership of the council from five to seven members.

The languages added to the list of official languages would be: Wetał (Ts’etsa’ut), Cup’ig, Benhti Kokhwt’ana Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana) and Sahcheeg xut’een xneege’ (Middle Tanana).

“This would change the total number of official languages in Alaska from 20 to 23,” the sponsor statement said. More correctly, there are 20 Alaska Native languages that are considered “official.” And then there is English, for a total of 21 official languages.

The state spends more than $13 million a year on the language preservation program, which is currently housed in the Alaska Department of Commerce at this link. The bill seeks to move the program to the Department of Education, however.

Of the new languages to be made official, the First Alaskans Institute Magazine says there are no fluent speakers of Wetal, there’s no data available on Cup’ig (originating from Nunivak Island, population 200), 1 fluent speaker of Benhti, and no fluent speakers of Sahcheeg. In reality, the last known speaker of Benhti died in 2019 at the age of 94.

The official languages of Alaska are English, Ahtna, Unangam Tunuu / Aleut, Alutiiq / Sugpiaq, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Eyak, Gwich’in, Haida, Han, Holikachuk, Inupiaq, Koyukon, Tanana, Tanacross, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Upper Kuskokwim, Upper Tanana, Central Alaskan Yup’ik and Siberian Yupik.

According to the 2022 report (in English) by the Alaska Native language council, a main goal of the group is to “decolonize” education in Alaska: “Recognize that Alaska Native people have a right to be educated in Alaska Native Languages, forge pathways to education through Alaska Native languages, & decolonize education throughout Alaska.” The council wants a standing committee in the Legislature dedicated to Alaska Native languages, and place Alaska Native languages “into the regular work of Alaska’s government.”

Read the 2022 Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council report and policy recommendations at this link.

Read the 2024 report here:

According to the Alaska Department of Commerce, Alaska Native languages and numbers of proficient speakers, as of 2020, are as follows:

INUIT-UNANGAN LANGUAGE FAMILY

Inupiatun (Inupiaq): Estimated <2,500 highly proficient speakers in Alaska
Yupigestun / Akuzipigestun (St. Lawrence Island Yupik): Estimated < 1,000 highly proficient speakers.
Yugtun/Cugtun (Central Alaskan Yup’ik / Cup’ik): Estimated <10,000 highly proficient speakers.
Cup’ig (Nunivak Island [Yupik]): Data unavailable
Unangam Tunuu (UnangaX Aleut): <80 highly proficient speakers
Sugt’stun / Alutiit’stun (Sugpiaq/Alutiiq [Yupik]): About ~80 highly proficient speakers

NA-DENE LANGUAGE FAMILY

Dena’inaq’ (Dena’ina): 5 highly proficient speakers.
Denaakk’e (Koyukon): Data unavailable
Holikachuk: 0 highly proficient speakers.
Deg Xinag: 2 highly proficient speakers
Dinak’i (Upper Kuskokwim): <5 highly proficient speakers—perhaps as few as one or none.
Benhti Kokhwt’ana Kenaga’ (Lower Tanana): 1 highly proficient speaker (referenced above as deceased)
Sahcheeg xut’een xneege’ (Middle Tanana): 0 highly proficient speakers.
Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in): <250 highly proficient speakers
Hän: 2 highly proficient speakers in Alaska
Dihthaad Xt’een Iin Aandeeg’ (Tanacross): <10 highly proficient speakers?
Nee’aanèegn’ (Upper Tanana): ~7 highly proficient speakers; about 25 proficient second-language speakers in Alaska
Koht’aene kenaege’ (Ahtna): ~25 highly proficient speakers.
dAxhunhyuuga’ (Eyak): 0 highly proficient speakers.
Lingít (Tlingit): ~50 highly proficient, first-language speakers plus ~20 highly proficient second-language speakers.
Wetał (Ts’etsa’ut): 0 highly proficient speakers.

HAIDA LANGUAGE FAMILY

Xaad Kíl (Haida): 3 fluent speakers in Alaska plus perhaps 2 highly proficient second-language speakers

TSHIMSHIANIC

Sm’algyax: 4 highly proficient speakers in Alaska

In Alaska, there are more speakers of Russian, Spanish, and Tagalog than all of the Native languages combined: Spanish speakers total 23,629, or about 3.45% of the population. Tagalog (including Filipino) is spoken by around 18,273; there are also 4,097 speakers of Hmong, and 3,811 speakers of Russian.

The Native language council has a list of demands, which include:

Declaration of an annual Alaska Native Languages Day.
Reconfirmation of the Linguistic State of Emergency (A.O. 300) that was declared by campaigning-for-reelection Gov. Bill Walker in September of 2018, just before he lost re-election.
Funding for more ANLPAC positions, and for more council travel.
Establishing “Alaska Native Languages” as standing committees within the State House and State Senate.

Rep. Story represents the northern part of Juneau — Upper Mendenhall Valley, Haines, Klukwan, Gustavus, and Skagway. Cosponsors of the bill are almost all Democrats. They are: Representatives Alyse Galvin, Sara Hannan, Genevieve Mina, CJ McCormick, Maxine Dibert, Jennie Armstrong, Cliff Groh, Andy Josephson, Calvin Schrage, Andrew Gray, Zack Fields, Daniel Ortiz, Rebecca Himschoot, Bryce Edgmon, Will Stapp, Mike Cronk, Craig Johnson, and Donna Mears. Senate sponsors include Jesse Kiehl, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Forrest Dunbar, and Loki Tobin.

The fiscal note on the bill adds $10,000 to the state budget to cover the cost of two additional members that are being added to the language council as they travel for the council’s meetings.

43 COMMENTS

  1. While I think that it is important for languages around the world to be preserved; I disagree with dumping so much government money into this and creating legislation for this cause. Preserving language needs to start in the home. Soon, we are going to have to start dumping money in to preserve English language because it is being lost in this massive flood of illegal alien immigration and native American preservation.

  2. The complete craziness of this is self explanatory. How many more “symbolic” gestures do we need? That’s all this represents. How many more times do we need to lean over and kiss their posteriors? Yes, the majority culture did not always treat the native people well but how long do we have to keep apologizing and spending money to appease them? When a group becomes more enlightened and tries to make up for past sins, we hope to eventually be forgiven–and most of us had nothing to do with it anyway!

  3. Why can’t they make their own alphabet like the Cherokee? They have got the phonetics of the English alphabet all wrong… but hey “educate” away.. there are no books written in those languages and there won’t be.

    • There won’t be books because history was passed down through oral stories. The systematic suppression of local languages ended most of these historical records permanently. We have no cultural similarities to down states Natives and the cultural and linguistic differences between Eskimos and Alaskan Indians are greater than the differences with the hybrid European language and culture of the historically recent White migrants. The independent minded down states Natives were simply exterminated, while the reservation, welfare accepting were allowed to live, subservient to the state. Alaska Natives were given a kinder, gentler method to destroy our cultures and leaving the possibility of creating a cohesive opposition interfering in the exploitation of Alaska’s resources by America’s ruling elite.

      • Excellent response Brian. I hope Nat will use his dormant critical thinking skills to see Natives a different way.

        (wanna bet?)

      • Brian, the fact that these original speakers of their language didn’t have the ability to record their stories in a written form is a major draw back in preservation of their language. Spin it however you want, but that is the cold hard fact. Other cultures the world over learned how , sadly Native Alaskans didn’t.
        BTW, other cultures created magnificent music, Greek being but one example, but guess what? They didn’t record it so it’s lost now.
        The world keeps on spinning and tomorrow is a new day!

        • Disagree with you completely. The languages are rarely spoken today because the youth was indoctrinated by the BIA and our elder relatives were forced through humiliation and physical punishment to end its use. Children, including close relatives were beaten for speaking in the languages of their families at home. It was promoted as a given fact that the 3rd rate “teachers” hired and deployed by the BIA were culturally, intellectually, racially and morally superior and therefore had to be listened to. With the exception of the Tlingits, Alaska Natives have a passive tendency and did not resist. Besides being treated as primitive and ignorant people, rampant sexual abuse of Native children was pervasive in the BIA schools. Our music is still performed and enjoyed to this day, don’t know what your talking about on that. That is one important cultural aspect that has not been lost.

    • Uh, no.

      Tlingit, which was oral until recently, has developed a written alphabet and is in the process of writing down many of their stories in both English and Tlingit. It’s a way to preserve their culture while making it more accessible to visitors.

      I’m led to believe many other tribes of decent size are doing the same. I only have definite proof about the Tlingit since Juneau is home.

  4. When Rep. JK Tomkins first introduced the bill to add native language to the state he said – and I believe it was on the record during committee meetings and the floor – that it was symbolic and not to have the state require any inclusion of the languages on state documents etc,,,

  5. Another example of one of the multitude of tentacles which comprise the unelected and permanent administrative state of Alaska, which considers itself all powerful, and maintains all power, pretending to be relevant to its’ subjects. Our Aunt Peggy has the scars on her hands from the physical discipline received for the offense of speaking Iñupiaq in school as a child. Native languages were systematically suppressed by design. The Sea Mammal Protection Act was passed to eliminate the ability for Natives to convert the value of local resources into the medium of cash, using the existing inherent skills male hunters had, during the transition from true subsistence into the modern economic system. In turn the state replaced itself as the essential provider for families, creating absolute dependence and making men and their traditional roles irrelevant to the survival of each distinct culture. Ending the widespread use of Native languages insured the State had no competition in replacing the garbage they call “education” for wisdom. The ignorant and incompetent government workers who are labeled public school “teachers” were (and remain) empowered to indoctrinate the youth to absorb, accept and parrot the narratives necessary to maintain an ignorant and subservient public. Displacing the parents from education is a critical component of maintaining a subservient to government society. (Ending public education resources for distance and homeschoolers is the most recent culmination of this long term project to institutionalize and consolidate control of the entire public). Native languages are tied to skills and activities which have been ended by design. Only families can keep these languages alive, the state is not able to nor has, or ever had any intention to.
    The narrative is maintained by listing the languages on an attractive paper under glass display in a museum. The same fate as happened to the US Constitution.

    • Brian, I was with you until you exaggerated. “The ignorant and incompetent government workers who are labeled public school “teachers” were (and remain) empowered to indoctrinate the youth to absorb, accept and parrot the narratives necessary to maintain an ignorant and subservient public.” This comment is not useful nor is it true. You have a personal angry belief. It is not supported by evidence.

      • Considering the vast sums of money wasted of public funds on Alaska public “education”, which when rated and compared with other states public “education” standards falls somewhere between Mississippi and Guinea Bissau, my evaluation is not far off base. Alaska rural education standards are far below most 3rd world countries. Which is not surprising as suppressing the local population to ease exploiting and plundering the resources of this region as a colony is expedient. A subservient public describes Alaska perfectly, and yes, Alaska public school teachers and administrators are overwhelmingly both incompetent and ignorant. A modern liberal arts or education degree issued from any American University has less practical value than toilet paper in any remote village, where freight costs are at a premium. Yes, anger is an instinctual emotion triggered by the blatant graft and hype of teacher union reps and our uniparty politicians who prostitute their offices for their lobbying bribes. With multiple rural Native grandchildren whose futures are at stake we concentrate on using family resources to circumvent the obstacles placed on our youth by socialist state control.

  6. If they are “official” languages, doesn’t that mean all official documents produced by the state have to be written in all those languages? Otherwise, what is “official” about them? And why isn’t Russian one of the languages?

  7. Oh for the love of God…
    And they left out Ebonics. Racists.

    Classic example of why we’re a failing state.

  8. Just imagine how racist it would be if a government counsel changed the word de-colonize to de-indigonize the language in Alaska? Would be interesting to watch the hypocrisy.

  9. Personalized message to Rep. Andi Story and his grandstanding, fake narrative “Council”, on behalf of our elders and grandchildren, you are full of “anak” (Iñupiaq) and “ni’kii’ hoo’ stook” (Kayukon)!

      • Respect is given when it is deserved. Very few legislators deserve respect when they are involved in this act of attempting to take down Alaska.

      • Our Juneau politicians are so irrelevant in their conformity to corruption and ignorance that I had no idea or interest as to who Andi was. Would be as important as remembering individuaI nobody’s in the Soviet Politburo. It is her irrelevant actions that I commented on. (Squandering public monies are a given in every move any of them make.) I did notice she was on the Democrat wing of the Uniparty, and frankly because gender fluidity is their current theme, it didn’t occur to me her gender identity matters to anyone? And no, she deserves no respect, as she has not earned it. Mocking Iñupiaq with this quintessinal white liberal useless pandering is insulting. Your comment caused me to check her profile online, and lo and behold she is a self proclaimed education advocate! Undoubtedly she “earned” a degree from some useless institute of higher learning. The irony is awesome. Now she can attend cocktail socials with her yuppie donors and squawk about her accomplishments and “concern” for Native cultures.

  10. That’s why the legislature got that raise, so they could work on important issues like this. Wish the PFD was this important.

  11. MRAKers are not ethnographers nor anthropologists. If they were they would understand the value of things lost. Ever been to a history museum and felt grateful that someone had the wherewithall to preserve an object or archive? Lost languages are like that.

    • We are not against the native speakers that want to keep the language alive. We just don’t want to pay for it. And I would also like to know about the few languages with NO one speaks. Keeping a language alive should be the objective of the native groups, not the state.

  12. Do citizens get $13 MILLION (annually!) value from this council?

    That’s a rhetorical question, as the answer is NO.

  13. Pandering to a small group once again. Spending 13 million dollars per years is an obscene waste. Should any group care to teach their children to speak a weird language, great, do it on their own. It certainly won’t move the ball forward in these communities, merely a feel good move,. Right up there with pig latin….

  14. “1 fluent speaker of Benhti,”
    How does anyone know that this one person is truly fluent if they’re the only one who claims to speak the language?
    Asking for a friend.

  15. The title alone says that white people don’t care about the history of the people whose land was not ceded.

  16. As long as everyone speaks a common language, I don’t really care what other languages they speak. I fear that eventually we’ll be like California, and issue ballots in a couple of dozen languages. I abhor any action taken by the state which serves to further divide us. We are all Americans, like it or not. That is the dominant culture, right or wrong. I respect the desire of various groups to preserve aspects of their culture and language, but let’s make sure we are working together as one state and one nation. I’m naive enough to believe what M. L. King said about judging people by the content of character, rather than color of skin.

  17. Considering the vast sums of money wasted of public funds on Alaska public “education”, which when rated and compared with other states public “education” standards falls somewhere between Mississippi and Guinea Bissau, my evaluation is not far off base. Alaska rural education standards are far below most 3rd world countries. Which is not surprising as suppressing the local population to ease exploiting and plundering the resources of this region as a colony is expedient. A subservient public describes Alaska perfectly, and yes, Alaska public school teachers and administrators are overwhelmingly both incompetent and ignorant. A modern liberal arts or education degree issued from any American University has less practical value than toilet paper in any remote village, where freight costs are at a premium. Yes, anger is an instinctual emotion triggered by the blatant graft and hype of teacher union reps and our uniparty politicians who prostitute their offices for their lobbying bribes. With multiple rural Native grandchildren whose futures are at stake we concentrate on using family resources to circumvent the obstacles placed on our youth by socialist state control.

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