A bill to ensure English is no longer the only language officially recognized by the State of Alaska is advancing in the state Legislature, after lawmakers voted to add 20 Alaska Native languages to the list.
The House voted unanimously to pass House Bill 216 on Wednesday, amid applause from the audience at the final tally. Considered wholly symbolic, the measure does not require state proceedings or documents to be in any language but English.
Proponents of the bill believe it will encourage the study and use of dying languages in the state and will eventually eradicate the historical stigma surrounding their speakers. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka), hopes it will also prevent the loss of several languages on the brink of extinction, following closely behind Eyak.
Eyak is the first Native language considered to be lost, after the death of Marie Jones Smith in 2008. Smith was believed to be the last speaker of the language and contributed to its only dictionary, which was written by Michael K. Strauss before her death.
“Eyak is one of the languages recognized in this bill. The last fluent speaker of Eyak passed away five short years ago,” Kreiss-Tomkins said in his House floor speech. “There are several other languages that are on the brink, have just a handful of fluent speakers left in Alaska.”
Included with Eyak are Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
Hawaii is the only other state that recognizes its local native languages alongside English.
Editor's note: An initial version of this story which inaccurately stated that House Bill 216 had also passed the Senate has been corrected.