Alaska Native Languages Introduction and History

“Our languages are reflections of our worldviews which are shaped by the natural and supernatural environment in which we live.” - Edna Ahgeak MacLean

A rich diversity of languages has been spoken in Alaska since time immemorial. There are twenty Alaska Native languages, from four distinct language families.

The language family with the largest number of speakers in Alaska is the Inuit-Yupik-Unangax language family (also known as Eskimo-Aleut). This family of languages stretches from the Far East of Siberia, through Alaska and Canada and all the way to eastern Greenland. Iñupiaq speakers in Alaska have shown some ability to communicate with Greenlandic speakers, despite the thousands of miles that separate these languages. Inuit-Yupik-Unangax languages often have extremely long words that might be expressed by a whole sentence in English.

See the figure below for a comparison of Unangax-Yupik-Inuit vocabulary:

Language

Translation for person

Iñupiaq

iñuk

Siberian Yupik

yuk

Central Yup'ik

yuk

Cup'ik

cuk

Sugpiaq

suk

The language family with the largest number of languages in Alaska is the Na-Dené language family, which includes 11 Athabascan languages, as well as Eyak and Tlingit. Na-Dené languages are spoken in Interior, Southcentral and Southeast Alaska, but can also be found outside of Alaska in western Canada, Oregon and the southwestern United States (where the Navajo language is spoken by more than 150,000 people). Many of these languages have very rich phonological systems; Tlingit, for example, has over 50 distinct sounds.

The Haida language, spoken on Prince of Wales Island and Haida Gwaii in Canada is generally thought to be a language isolate, which means that the language is alone on the global language “family tree” and has no root relationship to any other language.

Lastly, the Tsimshian language is spoken on Annette Island in the village of Metlakatla and is related to three other Tsimshianic languages in Canada. Although Tsimshian was not originally spoken in Alaska, a community of Coast Tsimshian people moved to Annette Island in 1887, led by the missionary William Duncan.

Alaska Native Language History

Alaska Native languages are the indigenous languages of this land and have been spoken in Alaska for tens of thousands of years. They have changed over time and been influenced by other Native and non-Native languages as speakers came into contact with one another. Periods of Russian and American occupation precipitated the dramatic decline of indigenous languages, and today, nearly all Alaska Native languages are endangered or extinct.

Before Russian contact, Alaska Native languages were the languages of the home, commerce and diplomacy with other Native nations; bilingualism or multilingualism was common.

In the late 18th century, Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq/Alutiiq populations plummeted due to European disease and enslavement after the arrival of the Russians. During this period, many Russian men intermarried with Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq/Alutiiq women and a large population of bilingual speakers arose. Following contact, many loanwords from Russian entered into the Unangax̂, Sugpiaq/Alutiiq and Yup’ik languages, such as the words for coffee and tea (kofe and chay, respectively).

During the early American period after Alaska was sold by Russia to the United States in 1867, Native languages in Alaska were still the dominant languages of Native communities. In 1885, Sheldon Jackson, a minister and missionary in Sitka, was appointed General Agent of Education of the Alaska Territory. Supported by the colonial administration, Sheldon Jackson employed English-only policies in Alaska’s schools, forbidding the use of Native languages. For nearly a century, the use of Native languages in community and boarding schools was met with physical and mental abuse and harsh punishment, contributing to the moribund status of many Alaska Native languages today.

English-only policies pervaded the legal and political system as well. When Alaska Natives finally earned suffrage rights in 1924, the Alaska Voter’s Literacy Act was passed the following year, requiring an English literacy test to vote.

According to Michael E. Krauss, a linguist at the Alaska Native Language Center, "a transitional period of rebirth of interest in Alaska Native languages and a shift of developments in their favor” occurred in the 1970s. In 1971, the Alaska Bilingual Education Law passed, allowing for bilingual education in Alaska’s schools and in 1976, the landmark “Molly Hootch” case settlement required the State of Alaska to provide local high schools in rural communities.

In recent years, some recognition of Alaska Native languages at the state level has occurred, but the fight to keep Alaska Native languages alive continues. In 2014, the legislature passed the Alaska Native Languages Bill, designating Alaska’s twenty indigenous languages as official languages, alongside English. In that same year, however, a federal judge had to overrule state election officials to require translation of election materials into Native languages for voters will limited English skills.

Communities around Alaska are working hard to revitalize their languages today. Some languages, such as Sugpiaq and Tlingit have seen an increase in number of language learners in recent years, and many other language communities are creating programs, resources and policies to help revitalize Alaska’s first languages.

Photos courtesy of the Alaska Native Language Archive