Alaska moves to include Native languages in public signs

The move is part of broader efforts to revitalize Alaska Native languages.

By Yereth Rosen - October 8, 2018
A map shows Iñupiaq place names in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic region. (NPS)

Expect to start seeing Native languages on public information signs around the Alaska.

Under an administrative order issued by Gov. Bill Walker last month, state agencies, schools, the University of Alaska and other stakeholders will work together to identify the Indigenous words and place names that should be put on signs on roadways, in the state ferry system and in other public places.

“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,” Walker said in a statement. “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.”

Additionally, according to Walker’s administrative order, each state agency is to designate a tribal liaison to help carry out government-to-government consultations.

The administrative action is a response to what Alaska officials have deemed a “linguistic emergency” for Alaska’s 20 native languages. In a report issued in January by the Alaska Native Language Preservation Advisory Council, an organization created in 2012, the strengthening of languages was termed a matter of “cultural justice.”

“We are at a critical tipping point and while Alaska Native peoples have fully realized the cumulative effect of policies that led to the banning of our languages and loss of identity, we know the power and resilience gained when we bring them back and we truly begin to heal,” the report said.

That report was followed by a legislative resolution that calls for the governor and other state agencies “to work with Alaska Native organizations to initiate and strengthen, as appropriate, legislative and policy measures that prioritize the survival and continued use of Alaska Native languages.

There has already been some work to restore indigenous place names in Alaska.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks, with funding from the National Science Foundation, has been compiling a database of Alaska maps and manuscripts with corresponding Native place names and descriptions.

Some Alaska communities have formally reverted to their traditional indigenous names, most notably Utqiagvik, which in 2016 officially changed its name from Barrow.

The most famous case of a Native place name being restored in Alaska might have been the Obama administration’s decision to use Denali rather than Mount McKinley as the official name of North America’s tallest peak. The Alaska state government has recognized the Denali name since the 1970s, but for years the federal government for decades resisted calls to do likewise.