For the Alaska Native languages, the years from 1960 to 1970 were, in Michael E. Krauss's words, "a transitional period of rebirth of interest in Alaska Native languages and a shift of developments in their favour".[1]

At the time of statehood in 1959, there were twenty indigenous languages spoken within the boundaries of the state of Alaska.[2] Most of these languages belong to one of two large language families: Eskimo-Aleut and Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit (Na-Dene). Though not included as a modern Alaska Native language, Tsetsaut was spoken in the region of the Portland Canal in southern Alaska at the time of Alaska purchase in 1867, but the last speaker died ≈ in the 1930s or 1940's.[3] In 1887, the Tsimshian language arrived in Alaska, moving under the leadership of Anglican missionary William Duncan.[1] The Tsimshian spoken in Alaska is one of the four Tsimshianic languages, while the other three spoken in Canada. The Haida language, once thought to be related to Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit, is an isolated language, not demonstrably related to any other language.[4]

Of these twenty languages, one is now extinct. The last speaker of Eyak died in 2008. Some authors consider the Salcha-Goodpaster dialect of Lower Tanana to be a distinct language, known as Middle Tanana.[5] The last speaker died in 1993.

Impacts of Colonization

Before colonization, most Alaskan Native groups had their own unique languages, which were used for everyday communications. Many people spoke several different languages in order to facilitate business and rapports among the different native groups. Upon contact with non-Native languages, the usage of native languages and the languages themselves have changed. As Russia was the first country to colonize Alaska (click here to read more on Russian colonization of Alaska), Russian words for goods or objects that were new to Native Alaskans were adopted into their native languages. For example, kofe (coffee) and chay (tea) are Russian words that have been added to the vocabularies of the Unangan (Aleut), Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), and Yup'ik languages. Intermarriages between Russians and Native Alaskans were frequent, giving rise to a large proportion of Native Alaskans being able to speak both their native languages and Russian. Still, Native Alaskan languages remained the dominant languages spoken in Alaska. [6]

It was only after American colonization when missionary and General Agent of Education of the Alaska Territory Sheldon Jackson arrived in Alaska in 1885 did the use of native Alaska languages start to plummet. Jackson implemented an "English Only" policy within the school, legal, and political systems, and any violation to the rule was met with physical and mental punishments and abuse. In 1924, the Alaska Voter's Literacy Act was passed, which demanded native Alaskan citizens to pass an English literacy test before earning the right to vote. This act further decreased the use of Native Alaska languages. Today, many of the Native Alaska languages are either on the brink of extinction or already extinct.[6]

Language preservation

Alaska Native languages are being recorded and transcribed today in the hopes of having them revitalized through the use of these published dictionaries and grammar books.[7] The languages are being recorded in their native tongue as speakers tell stories that are then written in both English and that language’s alphabet. These alphabets are relatively new to the languages since they did not typically have a written version of the language before the influence of non-Native Alaskans. About 20 native languages are being worked with by the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC). In current time, the languages are being re-taught to the villagers through classes that are of help in the villages around Alaska and Canada. At the same time, people who are interested in Alaska Native languages can also learn through university campus classes. These languages are not limited solely to Alaska since their speakers were among northern North America before state and country borders were established. One of these Athabaskan languages is documented to be found in Southeast Alaska, along the interior and eastern border of Alaska, into Northern Canada, and then on into Western Greenland.[8]

List of Alaska Native languages


Language Population Speakers Percent Speakers
Ahtna 500 80 %16.00
Aleut 2,200 300 %13.64
Alutiiq/Sugpiaq 3,000 400 %13.33
Dena'ina x x x
Deg Xinag 275 40 %14.55
Eyak 50 0 %0.00
Gwich'in 1,100 300 %27.27
Haida 600 50 %8.33
Hän 50 12 %24.00
Holikachuk 200 12 %6.00
Inupiat 13,500 3,000 %22.22
Koyukon 2,300 300 %13.04
Tanana 380 30 %7.89
Tanacross 220 65 %29.55
Tlingit 10,000 500 %5.00
Tsimshian 1,300 70 %5.38
Upper Kuskokwim 160 40 %25.00
Upper Tanana x x x
Yup'ik, Central Alaskan 21,000 10,000 %47.62
Yupik, Siberian 1,100 1,050 %95.45
  • Information in this table was retrieved from the Alaska Native Languages Center. [1]

External links


  1. ^ a b Krauss, Michael E. 1980. Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present, and Future. (Alaska Native Language Center Research Paper 4). Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
  2. ^ Krauss, Michael, Gary Holton, Jim Kerr, and Colin T. West. 2011. Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska. Fairbanks and Anchorage: Alaska Native Language Center and UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research.
  3. ^ Krauss, Michael E. & Victor K. Golla. 1981. Northern Athabaskan Languages. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 6: Subarctic, ed. by J. Helm, 67-86. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian.
  4. ^ Krauss, Michael E. 1997. The indigenous languages of the north: A report on their present state. Northern Minority Languages: Problems of Survival, ed. by H. Shoji & J. Janhunen, 1-34. (Senri Ethological Studies 44). Osaka, Japan: National Museum of Ethnology.
  5. ^ Holton, Gary. 2010. Behind the Map: The reification of indigenous language boundaries in Alaska. Working Papers in Athabaskan Languages, ed. by S. Tuttle & J. Spence, 75-87. (Alaska Native Language Center Working Papers 8). Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Fairbanks.
  6. ^ a b "Alaska Native Languages Introduction and History Alaska History and Cultural Studies". www.akhistorycourse.org. Retrieved 2017-07-10. 
  7. ^ Ruth,Ridley. Eagle han huch'inn hÒdÖk. Fairbanks,AK: Alaska Native Language Center,1983. Print
  8. ^ Leon Unruh, Editor for the Alaska native language center