“Our languages are reflections of our worldviews which are shaped by the natural and supernatural environment in which we live.”
- Dr. Edna Ahgeak MacLean, PhD
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).
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.
Finally, the Haida language, thought to be a language isolate and Coast Tsimshian, related to three other Tsimshian languages, are spoken in Southeast Alaska and Canada.
Alaska Native Languages 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 and colonization precipitated the dramatic decline of Indigenous languages, and today, nearly all Alaska Native languages are endangered, or sleeping (meaning there are currently no fluent language speakers).
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, Unangax 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 Unangax and Sugpiaq/Alutiiq women and a large population of bilingual speakers arose. Following contact, many loanwords from Russian entered into the Unangax, 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, Indigenous languages in Alaska were still the dominant languages of Alaska 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 Indigenous languages. For nearly a century, the use of Indigenous 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 with limited English skills. In 2018, the Alaska Legislature passed a bill declaring a "linguistic emergency" in Alaska.
Communities around Alaska are working hard to revitalize their languages today. Some languages, such as Sugpiaq and Tlingit have seen an increase in the 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.