There was a time when everyone in the area that is now Alaska spoke a language other than English. For centuries, the vast region was home to tens of thousands of indigenous people. More than 25 languages were spoken among the groups.
The first white settlers arrived from Russia in the 1700s and claimed the area as a colony of Russia. Several Native languages, including Yup’ik, adopted some Russian words. But Native languages were still the main ones spoken in Alaska.
That changed in the years after the United States purchased the Alaska territory from Russia in 1867. The U.S. government wanted to force Native Alaskans to give up their culture—including their languages. The government set up schools that forbade Native children from speaking any language other than English.
“Students were punished if they used a Native language,” explains Mitchell. “They were made to stand in corners, and their mouths were washed out with soap.”
Alaska wasn’t the only place where this happened. Across the U.S., Native American students were not allowed to speak their own languages in schools.
As generations passed, fewer Native Alaskans learned the languages of their ancestors. Some languages disappeared completely. When the last fluent speaker of a language dies, the language dies with that person. Often, the language isn’t all that is lost. The culture and traditions of the community that once spoke it might vanish too.
Attitudes about English-only education started to change in the 1960s. The U.S. government created programs for bilingual instruction in many public schools across the country. In Alaska, some schools began to teach in Native languages--—but only for short periods of the day.
Then in 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Languages Act. The law promised to “preserve, protect, and promote” Native languages in the United States. In the years since, Congress has given more funding to schools to teach Native languages.