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Alaska lawmakers declare emergency to save native languages

By Ray Downs
Alaska lawmakers declare emergency to save native languages
Tribal members, partners and National Park Service staff carry the Eagle Pole to a Tribal House site in Alaska. Thursday, lawmakers voted to declare a "linguistic emergency" to save the state's 20 indigenous languages. Photo by NPS

March 22 (UPI) -- Alaska's Native American languages are at the verge of going extinct by the end of the century and the state legislature has asked the governor to declare an emergency to save them.

In a 34-4 House vote, lawmakers passed House Concurrent Resolution 19, which asks the governor to put resources into saving Alaska's 20 indigenous languages through education programs.

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"The state is in critical danger of losing those languages and, according to the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council, the state may lose the last fluent speakers of all 20 Alaska Native languages by the end of the 21st century if current rates of language loss continue as they have since the 1970s," the bill states. "One Alaska Native language, Eyak, lost its last fluent speaker in 2008."

State Rep. Dan Ortiz, the sponsor of the bill, said the threat of multiple indigenous languages going extinct warranted a "linguistic emergency."

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"That's unacceptable, and we should dedicate time and resources to make sure that does not happen," he said in a statement.

The details of how lawmakers plan to preserve the languages remain unclear.

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State Rep. Dan Saddler pushed for the bill to "encourage Alaska Native families to use, and practice, and pass on that Alaska Native language on to their children," according to KYUK-TV.

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Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said that angle might not be unnecessary, pointing to the recent growth of native Alaskan language programs in public schools.

"That is a profoundly positive thing in that comes with public dollars, so there is a role for us," Kreiss-Tomkins said.

The House bill will now go to the state Senate.

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In recent years, Alaskan lawmakers have made efforts to preserve the state's native languages.

In 2014, Alaskan lawmakers voted to make all 20 native languages official state languages.

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