Though largely symbolic, the bill is a big step forward in recognizing 20 Native languages as equal to English. (KCAW photo/Emily Kwong)

The number of Native languages speakers has been shrinking in Alaska. Roughly 500 people speak Tlingit in Southeast. (KCAW photo/Emily Kwong)

Twenty Native languages, including Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, became official state languages on Thursday, Oct. 23.  Though largely symbolic, advocates hope the signing of the bill will further Native language education and use.

Gov. Sean Parnell signed House Bill 216 into law during a ceremony at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage. Until its passage, English was Alaska’s only official state language. The bill’s primary sponsor was Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.

Downloadable audio.

For Sitka resident Heather Powell, the signing marked a personal victory for a member of her family.

Powell’s grandmother was a clan mother in Sitka and an outspoken advocate of Native language revitalization. Her English name was Jessie Johnnie and in Tlingit, Shgaté.

Johnnie was one of the first Tlingit language teachers in the Sitka School District, where she taught from 1994 to 1996. A year before her death, Johnnie was asked to advise future generations of Tlingit speakers. Her answer was recorded and lives on in a YouTube video.

A part of Johnnie’s speech was quoted before the House State Affairs Committee as testimony, when the Native languages bill was introduced last spring.

Like a canoe. Our language. It arrived here again. It arrived here again. It arrived here again. The language of the people who are our history. How very heavy this is for people.

Powell has dedicated her life to keeping her grandmother’s language alive. She is the director of Education Services at the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. She speaks both English and Tlingit at home with her three children.

Powell says teaching her children Tlingit has been rewarding in ways she never expected.

“There will be days where, days that are harder than others,” said Powell. “And they’ll say, ‘I love you. I love you very much.’ And it means so much more when you hear it in your language. There’s so much strength in it.”

With the governor’s signature, House Bill 216 is now the law of the land – and for Powell, a formal recognition of the language of her elders.