[lg policy] Alaska

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 14 11:39:16 EDT 2019

OPINION: Celebrating indigenous languages takes more than lip service

May 10th 10:22 am | *Carey Restino
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When Siqiniq Maupin, an Inupiat from the North Slope region, started to
address an international group at the Stockholm Convention earlier this
month, she began in her traditional way, introducing herself first in

She was interrupted and requested that she speak in English, explaining
that it was an English-only meeting. Maupin told the meeting facilitator
that her introduction would be short and that she would follow with an
English translation, but she was told only to speak in English.

While to some, that request might seem simply a procedural matter
reflecting the fact that there were no interpreters at the meeting, Maupin
felt the request cut deeply into the cultural history of her ancestors.

Across Alaska, Native languages are dying. Of the 20 main languages spoken
in Alaska today, the number of speakers continues to diminish. For some
dialects, fewer than 10 percent of the population speak the language. While
there are an estimated 10,000 members of the Tlingit population in Alaska,
only 500 speak the language. For Inupiat, estimates are that slightly more
than 22 percent of the population speak the language of one of the largest
Native groups in Alaska.

Languages do not die on their own. They fade away because they are
replaced, sometimes forcefully, and that is the case in Alaska. Even after
colonization by Russia, Alaska's Native languages remained the dominant
languages of the region. When American colonization began, however, all
that changed. Territorial days were not kind to Alaska Natives, nor their
languages. Schools implemented an English-only policy, as did government
offices and the territorial legal system.

While the English-only policy gradually diminished in most regions after
statehood, these policies weren't legally struck down by the courts until
2002 when the Alaska Civil Liberties Union challenged the law, saying it
prevented government officials and public officials from communicating with
members of the public in languages other than English. But the damage was
already done. Entire generations had not been taught their Native tongue,
not by schools or by family members, who feared their children could be
punished for speaking anything other than English.

In many communities across Alaska today, the only Native speakers are
Elders, and the race is on to document and preserve the languages before
those speakers pass on. Efforts are underway to teach what is still known
to the up-and-coming generations, through second-language immersion
programs, computer programs like the new Rosetta Stone Inupiaq language
tool and even an iPhone app that uses the Inupiatun alphabet.

All those efforts are worthwhile and important, but they can't stand on
their own. The real fuel to feed the fire of Native language revitalization
is respect born out of an understanding of the loss that has occurred and
the importance of rebuilding from this point forward. That's why the United
Nations declared 2019 "The Year of Indigenous Languages." Wordwide,
languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, the organization wrote,
despite their deep importance as repositories for cultural history,
traditions and memory.

However, if the United Nations, under whose umbrella the Stockholm
Convention is organized, is serious about supporting and promoting the
value of indigenous languages, it must first start with its own policies
and procedures. While meetings must operate in such a manner that all
present can understand and communicate with each other, allowing an
indigenous speaker a few minutes to introduce herself in her native tongue
is exactly the sort of action that shows due respect for the value of that
language. Shutting her down mid-sentence is the exact opposite.

As Maupin said, the right to speak in her Native language is something she
should not ever have to ask permission to do. Though she was later offered
an apology, it fell flat in substance. Let us hope the United Nations and
all the organizations it represents use this experience to find real,
effective ways to truly promote indigenous languages that go beyond lip
service and declarations.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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