Governor Declares Emergency for Alaska's Native Languages

Tlingit tribe members during a welcome ceremony in 2006. Gillfoto/Wikimedia Commons

As times change, languages change with them. Disease, war and the passage of time lead to alterations, and sometimes languages simply fade out of existence.

In an effort to combat this from happening to its 20 Native languages, Alaska's governor declared a linguistic emergency on Sept. 23 through an administrative order.

"This order focuses on concrete ways Alaska can show leadership to support its first people and their languages — one of our richest and most at-risk resources," Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement released by his office. "It's our responsibility to acknowledge government's historical role in the suppression of indigenous languages, and our honor to move into a new era by supporting their revitalization."

Preserving languages

These concrete ways include integrating the languages into public schools and universities, and updating to "bilingual signage that recognizes indigenous place names, including street and marine highway signs."

Additionally, the order asks that each of the state's agencies develop plans for "meaningful government-to-government consultation with tribes" and directs the agencies to participate in the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) endeavor led by First Alaskans.

"Alaska Native languages are a resource we must work to protect," Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott said in the statement. "Developed over thousands of years lived in concert with the land, they carry knowledge about our homes, our cultures, and our ways of life that can't be communicated any other way. I want to thank the Alaska Legislature for stepping forward earlier this year and supporting the foundational issue of Native language revitalization by passing HCR 19."

A Haida dances while wearing an eagle mask.
A Haida dances while wearing an eagle mask. Graham Richard/Council of the Haida Nation/Wikimedia Commons

Both the administrative order and HCR 19, which urged the order, came on the heels of a January report from the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council, which warned that all 20 of the state's officially recognized Native languages were at risk of extinction by the end of the century.

According to KTOO, one of the languages covered by the order, Eyak, lost its last fluent speaker 10 years ago.

During the order's signing ceremony at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center during the First Alaskans Institute's Social Justice Summit, Walker acknowledged the state's role in discouraging the use of these languages.

"I know we need to celebrate where we are, but boy, if you don't reflect on where you've been, it really is only part of the discussion, part of the celebration," Walker said at the signing ceremony.

A language sampling

The administrative order covers Inupiaq, Siberian Ypik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax̂, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian — all of which became official languages in Alaska in 2014. Here's more detail on a few of them, with videos.

1. Inupiaq. Also known as Eskimo-Aleut, Inupiaq is spoken by a little more than 2,000 people, according to the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Speakers cover a wide geographic range, from Northern Alaska to Northwestern Canada. The language has two major dialect groups, North Alaskan Inupiaq and Seward Peninsula Inupiaq.

2. Tsimshian. Comprising four languages — Coast Tsimshian, Southern Tsimshian, Nisg̱a'a and Gitksan — Tsimshian is spoken by around 400 people in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.

3. Gwich'in. Spoken in the Alaska villages of Arctic Village, Venetie, Fort Yukon, Chalkyitsik, Circle, and Birch Creek, and in an adjacent area of the Northwest Territories and Yukon Territory, Gwich'in has around 150 speakers left. Since 1870, the language has had written literature.

4. Tlingit. Spoken by people in Southeast Alaska and and Western Canada, Tlingit (also written Łingít) has a murky history as no written records of it exist prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 1790s. A practical writing system was developed in the 1960. The Alaska Native Language Center estimates there are around 175 speakers left.