JUNEAU, ALASKA – Alaska’s governor signed a bill on Thursday to officially recognize the state’s 20 indigenous languages in a symbolic move that gives a nod to tribal efforts to save Native American tongues at risk of dying out.
The move would make Alaska only the second U.S. state, after Hawaii, to officially recognize indigenous languages, although English would remain the official language and the state would not be required to conduct business in any other tongue.
“Alaska native young adults and students throughout the State have demonstrated remarkable success in revitalizing Alaska Native languages,” Republican Gov. Sean Parnell said in a statement. “This bill reinforces that effort and recognizes the vibrant, existing Alaska Native languages of the state of Alaska.”
Parnell signed the bill in Anchorage to help kick off the Alaska Federation of Natives conference, the state’s largest annual gathering of indigenous people.
In April, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill.
The law deliberately remains symbolic, featuring a provision that does not require the state or a municipal government to conduct business or government activities in languages other than English.
Lance Twitchell, a professor of native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, said the bill was important even if largely symbolic.
“Symbols are still very powerful,” Twitchell said in an interview. “Crosses are symbols. The American flag is a symbol.”
Recognizing the languages sends a message that they are important, he said.
The number of people who can speak Alaska’s native languages has been shrinking rapidly. Generations of young Alaskans were discouraged and even punished for speaking them.
Some native languages have only a few dozen fluent speakers left, and others are down to a few hundred.
In 2008, one of the state’s indigenous languages, Eyak, become extinct with the death of its last fluent speaker, Marie Smith.
Twitchell said he hoped Alaska would now be able to preserve and even expand knowledge of its native languages, pointing to success in revitalizing native tongues in Hawaii.
“Hawaii has gone from language decline and become one of the few areas where they are producing more native speakers than they are losing,” Twitchell said.