By MIKE COPPOCK
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ Surrounded by a cheering crowd, some wearing Alaska Native traditional clothing, the House State Affairs committee on Tuesday moved a bill symbolically adding 20 native languages to the list of official languages of the state.
The bill moved with surprising ease after the last meeting, where some committee members expressed doubt over the bill’s intent and one sponsor said she was frustrated by opposition to the bill.
House Bill 216, co-sponsored by Reps. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, and Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, was reworked to emphasized the 20 languages will not be used for legal purposes nor will official state paperwork be printed in 21 languages if the bill becomes law.
The bill encountered resistance during the last meeting, where several committee members expressed concern that the intent of the bill in making the languages only symbolic was not clear.
“You do not understand the impact of being forbidden to use your native tongue in your own land,” Tlingit elder Selina Everson said.
Opposition to the original bill was sparked what many saw as too much emphasis on the word “official.”
One of those in opposition of the original bill, Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole, said he worked with Kreiss-Tomkins on the bill’s language so that the word “official” would not be interpreted as intent language.
The bill gives symbolic status to Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Han, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.
The last Eyak speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008.
“You can’t have multiculturalism in Alaska and a monolithic language,” said Lance Twitchell, a teacher of Alaska Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.
The number of Native Hawaiian speakers has increased after that state made Hawaiian an official language along with English, Twitchell said. Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that recognizes an indigenous language as an official language.
According to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, 19 of Alaska’s 21 indigenous languages are in danger of becoming extinct.
The bill moves to the House Rules Committee.