Many Alaska Native languages at risk of extinction

If Alaska's Native languages vanish in the next generation, it won't be because people didn't try hard to keep them alive, says Gary Holton.

"There are significant efforts with Yup'ik immersion schools and teacher training programs," said Holton, associate professor of linguistics in the Alaska Native Language Center and director of the Alaska Native Languages Archive at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

He pointed to an ongoing documentation effort, dictionaries and teaching of the endangered Deg Xinag and Han Athabascan dialects. Even Eyak, technically extinct, is benefiting from a language revival program that recently held workshops in Anchorage and Cordova, he said.

But he admits that the situation is critical for many of the state's indigenous languages.

The last person who called Eyak her first language, Marie Smith, died in 2008. Maybe one or two speakers of Holikachuk are still alive around Grayling, Holton said. A few more speak Deg Xinag, the neighboring Athabascan dialect. The number of Han speakers in Eagle is "perhaps less than 10; the situation on the Canadian side of the border is even worse. Maybe two speakers."

Holton played a key role in crafting the latest edition of the Alaska Languages Map. The map, which shows the historic distribution of 20 different Native Alaska languages, was first produced in 1974 by the director of the language center, Michael Krauss. It has been updated since then.

This most recent edition, available online at, features several changes, Holton said. The names of some languages have been changed, either to reflect advances in linguistics or to rectify old names that may have been in some way offensive: Tanaina has become Dena'ina; Aleut is now Unangax; Ingalik is now Deg Xinag.

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