Researchers and the general public have often contended that punishment of children for speaking their native languages in schools is the cause of the decline of those languages. But native language loss in Alaska is rooted also in the choices Natives made themselves to accept English for its social, economic, and political opportunities. Since the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, English has replaced native languages as the first language learned by children in nearly all homes. Although none of Alaska's twenty native languages is yet extinct, most are at a point of peril as English has replaced a pattern of linguistic diversity that existed from time immemorial. This study documents the history of language decline and the role of federal government policy in that process. Congress extended federal policies to Alaska in 1884 when it established civil government in the territory. In 1885 the Bureau of Education assumed responsibility for running rural schools. Federal policy during that era grew out of America's desire for uniformity of culture, religion, and language, and as a result schools often forcibly suppressed Native American languages and punished students for speaking them. Yet Alaska Natives have been active participants in change, not passive victims of an overwhelming bureaucracy. The switch to English occurred as Natives responded to the influx of American population with its systems of economy, society, politics, and justice. Natives abandoned their old languages when they became convinced through pressures from the outside world that English held more prestige and advantage than their native languages. Government policies defined the choices that were available, and Natives adopted English for the opportunities it afforded them in a modern system that was not of their own making. Once families began using English as the language of the home and thus interrupted the continuity of native language use from one generation to the next, the decline of native languages was assured. Punishment of school children for speaking their native languages, along with American social, economic, and political systems, created an environment in which Alaska Natives made the constrained choice to adopt English as the language of the home and community.
Thesis (Ph.D.) University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1998
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