At KNBA, Anchorage's native-owned radio station, programmers spice
their alternative-rock menu with gentle linguistics lessons. Greeted
with the Yup'ik "cangacit?" (how are you?), listeners learn to
respond, "assirtua" (fine).
Audience members - many of them urban American Indians, Aleuts,
Yup'ik Eskimos, and Inupiat Eskimos who never learned their
ancestors' dialects - appreciate the "Native Word of the Day"
feature, taped by native elders.
Now a pending statewide ballot measure that would require only
English be used by state and local governments is stirring up
concerns that native languages will be endangered.
The English-only movement has swept 23 states, mainly because of
concerns over the impact of large immigrant populations. But now
it's knocking on Alaska's door, triggering a sensitive and enduring
debate over the identity of one of America's most isolated - and
international - states.
Although Alaska doesn't have California-type woes, they're coming
soon, initiative supporters say. "Alaska, being a relatively new
state, will sometimes have problems come to them relatively later
than other states," says Tim Schultz, director of communications for
US English, an advocacy group based in Washington.
Alaska's growing population includes migrants from California and
other states, he adds. When Mr. Schultz recently campaigned for the
initiative, he says, "a lot of people who had moved up to Alaska from
California said, 'Where can I sign?' "
But even initiative supporters admit that currently there is not a
problem of immigrants in Alaska lacking English skills.
In fact, Alaskans are proud of their Pacific Rim ties and
international exchanges. Japanese, Russian, and Spanish programs in
Anchorage schools are popular. Chinese stores and Middle Eastern
restaurants neighbor the Anchorage headquarters of Alaskans for a
Common Language, which got more than 30,000 signatures to put the
measure on November's ballot.
People worried about the survival of Alaskan native languages say
this initiative is an imported issue that hurts, at the very least on
a symbolic level.
"Alaska native languages, far from being a menace, are themselves
menaced," says Michael Krauss, director of the University of Alaska's
Native Language Center. Few of Alaska's 20 aboriginal languages are
spoken by children. Some - like Eyak, spoken only by a single
elderly Indian woman - are almost extinct. Such is the result of
past policies forcing assimilation and newer powers like cable TV,