Summary: first report of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council

Background

This post summarizes the first report of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council in order to give readers an overview of the findings and recommendations made by this newly established body. The Council’s recommendations bulleted below are paraphrased summaries – not the verbatim recommendations made by the Council.

In May 2012, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell signed Senate Bill 130 into law, establishing the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council. The Council’s seven members were appointed by Gov. Parnell five months later. Council members serve three year terms. Council members are as follows:

  • Alaska State Senator Donald Olson (Inupiaq) of Golovin
  • Alaska State Representative Benjamin Nageak (Iñupiaq) of Barrow
  • Annette Evans Smith (Council Chair – Athabaskan, Yup’ik and Alutiiq) of the Alaska Native Heritage Center
  • April Laktonen-Counceller (Vice Chair – Alutiiq) of Kodiak College
  • Delores Churchill (Haida) of the University of Alaska Southeast
  • Yaayuk Alvanna-Stimfle (Inupiaq) of the Kawerak Eskimo Heritage Program
  • Walkie Charles (Yup’ik) of the Alaska Native Language Center at UAF

The purpose of the Council is to “recommend the establishment or reorganization of programs to support the preservation, restoration, and revitalization of Alaska Native languages” by advising the governor and legislature on programs, policies, and projects to provide for the “cost-effective preservation, restoration, and revitalization of Alaska Native languages in the state” (p. 4).

The Council published its first report (which you can find here) to the governor and legislature last week, which it is required to do every two years. The report provides a general overview of Alaska Native language status and revitalization efforts, and includes five policy recommendations to the governor and legislature. A summary of the report’s recommendations and findings are bulleted below.

The Council has met 11 times since members were appointed in October 2012. Council members developed a strategic plan in early 2014 that focuses on: 1) funded educational opportunities, 2) research, 3) planning to implement recommendations, 4) work with partners, and 5) ensure sustainability of the Council.

Council members have begun forming partnerships across the state, including with the Alaska Native Language Center and Alaska Native Heritage Center. It has carried out education and outreach at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention and First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference. The Council has also met with other language stakeholder organizations such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

The Council carried out a 33 question online survey between 2013 and 2014, completed by 131 participants representing 65 communities. 90 percent of respondents said they want to learn an Alaska Native language, 80 percent of parents would enroll their kids in a language program and 97 percent of parents would participate in a language program with their children. 85 percent of survey participants know someone who wants to learn to speak, read and/or write an Alaska Native language. Only 50 percent indicated that there is a language program in their community.

Recommendations

  • The Council found research data on Alaska Native language status lacking or outdated, hindering “the formation of innovative solutions to Alaska Native language loss” (p. 10). Policy makers and leaders in Alaska need up-to-date data on language status, speaker numbers, and effective policies and programs. Alaska Native community members also need more information about learning opportunities in their own and other regions of the state.

    Recommendation 1: The Council wants a legislative grant it can use to conduct a comprehensive update of speaker numbers and language status around the state, citing the fact that the Council is working with outdated fluent speaker counts. Council members also want to use this grant to expand and continue research on existing and effective language programs in Alaska which along with Alaska Native Language Center research will be added to an online, comprehensive database.

  • Many Alaska Natives who wish to learn or teach their languages are not aware of learning opportunities or resources through which to do so. These communication and information gaps should be addressed through a concerted statewide effort.

    Recommendation 2: the Council recommends a two-year, public information awareness campaign modeled on Gov. Parnell’s controversial “Choose Respect,” anti-domestic violence campaign. The purpose of the public information awareness campaign would be to “utilize paid and no-cost efforts to share information with the public about the importance of Alaska Native language learning and revitalization” (p. 11). Phase 1 of the campaign would involve Council staff researching, surveying and determining public perceptions and information needs regarding Native language revitalization, restoration and preservation. Phase 2 would identify the campaign’s target audiences in order to “increase awareness of the Council and Alaska Native language programs, increase the desire to learn an Alaska Native language, build partnerships, and facilitate information sharing for the community online database” (p. 12). The Council would later “determine if the information campaign was successful in reaching the intended target audience, key messages understood and feedback provided.”

  • The Council observed that there is no central clearinghouse of information for policy makers, leaders, organizations, or learners to access information about language learning programs, hindering information-sharing and collaboration throughout the state. The Council found vast program differences between regions and few opportunities for inter-Alaska Native collaboration on language issues.

    Recommendation 3: The Council recommends funding for sponsorship of a statewide language summit at the Alaska Native Heritage Center; it also recommends funding to expand the Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Database Online to include information about Alaska Native language statistical information and programs. The purpose of the summit would be to “allow individual regions a greater level of agency to enact region-specific language planning efforts” through information sharing about success stories (p. 15). The Council believes that such collaboration “will encourage communities to take a  leadership role in the activities and initiatives that work best for their location” (p. 15). The purpose of the Community Database would be to “serve as an information clearinghouse for information on regional language statistics, speakers, programs, learning materials, and funding” (p. 16). The website would allow users to submit additional information about their own programs and community efforts as well as to access language learning resources.

  • The Council found large discrepancies between existing language education policy and actual language learning opportunities in schools, as well as variance in resources allocation and access to learning opportunities across the state. The Council cites AS 14.30.420 as its primary example, a state statute from 2000 that “mandates that school districts with a majority of students who are Alaska Native shall establish a local Native language curriculum advisory board” to direct district language initiatives (p. 20).
  • Of the 54 school districts in Alaska, 28 school districts are majority Alaska Native yet only five are in compliance with this statute.
  • The Council also heard testimony about the lack of sufficient funds to support language education in schools and the corresponding need for families, schools, and communities to collaborate to achieve quality language instruction. Survey respondents expressed concern that parents and schools were not providing enough educational opportunities or tools to teach younger generations to learn Alaska Native languages (p. 18).  The Council also cited challenges related to teacher certification given that the majority of fluent speakers are elders.

    Recommendation 4: The Council recommends expansion of Alaska Statute 14.30.420. It wishes to research the statutory threshold of requiring individual, majority Alaska Native schools to comply with the law because there are often majority Native schools within majority white school districts. This would “increase the number of schools that benefit from having a Native language advisory board, and potentially, a Native language curriculum” as required by AS. 14.30.420. The Council also intends to help bring more school districts into compliance with the statute by working with the Alaska Department of Education and state policy makers to educate districts about the statute.

  • The Council found that language speakers’ traumatic experiences with assimilatory policies and language shaming continue to be a barrier to language revitalization. There is a “need for open dialogue and reconciliation within communities and at all levels of the state” (p. 23). Because of the role that governments and policy makers have played in language erosion, “it is reasonable to expect that policy makers participate in the creation of an environment conducive to reconciliation” (p. 24).

    Recommendation 5: The Council recommends the establishment of an annual state holiday, Alaska Native Languages Day, on April 21 (the anniversary of HB 216, the April 2014 bill that symbolically elevates Alaska Native languages to official languages alongside English). The Council also recommends that communities and regions work with the Alaska Historical Commission to collaborate on increasing the number of official Alaska Native language place names approved by the U.S. Geological Survey. Finally, the Council commits itself to continue to hear and record testimony at public events as a way of spreading awareness about the history of language suppression and to promote healing.

Conclusion

The Council believes that despite rapid, ongoing Alaska Native language shift, “well-planned and well-implemented language programs can reverse the trend” (p. 25). Council members believe that their recommendations, if enacted, “would improve the feasibility of future efforts for language revitalization in our state” and “aid policy makers, regions, communities, and families in their interconnected efforts” by “fostering an environment conducive to language use and revitalization throughout communities” (p. 26).

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1 Comment

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One response to “Summary: first report of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council

  1. Pingback: Summary: First Report of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council | Alaska Commons

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