State Senate unanimously recognizes Alaska Native ‘linguistic emergency’

The Alaska Senate voted 20-0 in favor of a resolution declaring a “linguistic emergency” for Alaska Native languages, ending almost a week of debate about whether the issue merited the word “emergency.”

“Gunalchéesh, Háw’aa to the Alaska Senate,” the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska wrote on Twitter.

“We’re one step closer to ensuring the survival our AK Native languages!” it said.

House Concurrent Resolution 19, declaring the emergency, will return to the House, which is expected to agree with a handful of changes made in the Senate.

HCR 19 was sponsored by Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, in response to a recommendation of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council to declare a linguistic emergency in Alaska.

As drafted by Ortiz and as approved 34-4 by the Alaska House, the resolution closely matched what was recommended by the council. It said the preservation of language equates to the preservation of culture, and Alaska Native languages in Alaska are being lost at a rapid pace because the last remaining fluent speakers are dying of old age.

It concluded by asking Gov. Bill Walker to issue an administrative order recognizing a linguistic emergency.

In the Senate’s state affairs committee, that word, “emergency,” was removed and replaced with a request that Walker “issue an administrative order recognizing the urgent need for language revitalization efforts.”

Last week, Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage and the committee chairman, told the Empire that committee members agreed about the importance of language preservation, but they were wary of the word “emergency.”

“I think in most people’s minds, when you think of an emergency, you think of a fire, a flood, a major disaster like that,” he said.

Members of the Tlingit and Haida annual assembly marched to the Capitol in response to the move and filled the committee room. The audience spilled into the hallway, and the Central Council issued a statement saying it “objects to and protests the changing of the wording from ‘recognizing a linguistic emergency’ to ‘recognizing an urgent need for language revitalization.’”

Language loss is a major disaster, they said: Centuries of deliberate suppression by European and American governments have led to cultural loss, and language loss is culture loss.

HCR 19 had been scheduled for a vote in the Senate earlier in the week, but in response to the protest, it was removed from the floor and put into the House Rules Committee.

In a Wednesday morning meeting, senators voted 5-0 to remove the section calling on Walker to issue an administrative order. They also rejected a request by Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, to restore the word “emergency.”

“Emergency isn’t just a term of art. It’s a statutory thing, it’s a constitutional thing,” said Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, in voting against the request.

Just a few hours later, however, Kelly joined other lawmakers in unanimously supporting an amendment on the Senate floor to restore the words.

In the intervening hours, Gardner had combed state statutes and found 466 other instances where lawmakers had used the word “emergency” without declaring an official state of emergency.

That was enough, combined with the removal of the section asking for an administrative order, to convince recalcitrant senators.

“The fact that we weren’t asking the governor to do an administrative order then made people more comfortable about using the word emergency,” Meyer said.

Supporters of the emergency resolution filled much of the Senate gallery during the vote, and a pair of backers sang a Nisga’a prayer song outside the chambers before the vote.

It was composed by a chief in Canada just before he went into court to defend land rights, said Alfie Price, one of the singers.

“We use it at similar times when we’re doing something important,” he said.

After the vote, Tlingit and Haida cultural heritage and education manager Sarah Dybdahl said Wednesday’s vote represents a first step.

“Today, it’s important because the work of ANLPAC and those that have done the work is being recognized,” she said.

“I think also, our languages are at a critical point where it’s an emergency and we’re losing our languages.”


• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.


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