Voting in Alaska Native languages

Well, in five of the remaining nineteen (living) languages, anyway.

After a judge ordered in July that the state of Alaska must provide Yup’ik language assistance to voters, I was curious to see how the state would follow up. I’ve just found a nice website, Alaska Native Vote, with voting terms in (Central Alaskan) Yup’ik as well as four other Alaska Native languages: Iñupiaq, Gwich’in Athabascan, Koyukon Athabascan, and Siberian Yupik.

Of course, one can only wonder to what extent this will reach the primarily elderly monolingual speakers, but it’s a start. I don’t have time to track it down now, but I’ve heard they’re also broadcasting voting assistance on local radio stations. According to the ACLU and news sites, the judge ordered that the state must provide

trained poll workers who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local tribes to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court tracking the state’s efforts

Alaska Native Vote provides a printed Yup’ik glossary as well as sound files in five languages, so it has a wider audience than just the Yup’ik assistance that the judge ordered. The same material is available on the Division of Elections website. Admittedly, it took a judge to get the state to provide it, but I have to say it looks like they’re now doing an admirable job getting voting information out there in various languages.

Ironically, one of the objections raised by the Division of Elections was that providing Yup’ik language voting assistance in the Bethel area would be too much work, yet they have had all sorts of voting material in Tagalog on their website for a lot longer time (due Alaska’s sizable Filipino community – why they don’t also have Samoan and Korean is a mystery). Oddly, many city and state services, like public health offices, have material in Samoan, Korean, Tagalog, and Russian, but rarely in any of the indigenous languages. From a demand point of view, it’s probably true they have very few clients coming in wanting help in Deg Xinag, but there are thousands of Yup’ik speakers across the state. The state’s other main argument, of course, was that providing Yup’ik ballots alone would do very little, since many, if not most, elders are literate in English but not Yup’ik (having never received schooling in Yup’ik). That’s a valid argument, I think, but only as a reason for not providing only written assistance. The judge’s decision that the state must provide reasonable audio assistance solved the problem by requiring oral assistance as well.

Finally, when you click on the website’s navigation links at the top, the image in the top left corner changes, each with a different ethnonym. I’m very impressed that the website’s creators got the diacritics correct! Not all of the Alaska Native groups are listed – Aleut, for example, isn’t represented – but quite a few are. Iñupiaq has its tilde (although in some dialects, the nasal isn’t palatal), and they have separate images for Yup’ik (geminate; specifically means Central Alaskan Yup’ik) and Yupik (non-geminate; here refers to Siberian Yupik), with Cup’ik to boot!

(images © Get Out The Native Vote, 2008)


6 thoughts on “Voting in Alaska Native languages

  1. James October 11, 2008 / 3:20 pm

    Cup’ik people get really angry when lumped together with Yup’ik people. I have yet to fully understand why, and I wonder if it’s a modern thing or goes back to precolonial times. I get the impression that the language differences are largely dialectal and don’t impede mutual intelligibility, but I could be wrong. Culturally they seem to this outsider to be essentially the same.

  2. tulugaq October 11, 2008 / 9:05 pm

    That’s my impression too, James. Until recently, I only saw references to Hooper Bay Yup’ik (dialect), but there’s been a strong push to claim that dialect as a community identity (again, from an outsider’s perspective). It doesn’t matter to me either way, but I’m curious what brought about the distancing of Cup’ik identity from other Yup’ik dialects.

  3. David Marjanović October 22, 2008 / 11:16 am

    “Native American” votes are 2000 times less likely to be counted than white ones, nationwide. Does that hold for Alaska, too…?

  4. tulugaq October 22, 2008 / 11:40 am

    I’m not a political expert, David, but I certainly hope that’s not the case.

  5. wamut November 18, 2008 / 7:34 am

    well you mob are streaks ahead of australia. Indigenous ppl here are lucky if they know an election is on or what it’s about let alone get access to info in their own language.

    recently the government formed ‘supershires’ which changed local government completely without consultation. they held the first council elections and most people thought they were voting for whether they wanted the supershires or not, not who they wanted on the supershire council!

    btw, how many speakers are there of the 5 languages that had own-language election info?

  6. tulugaq January 6, 2009 / 2:56 pm

    Sorry for the slow response, wamut. Got a little behind on things after being ill for a bit.

    The Alaska Federation of Natives tries to make sure all their constituents know about upcoming elections, but in reality the actual voting process can be very difficult in some locations due to their isolation. Some villages don’t get regular mail service, for example, so getting absentee ballots out on time is critical.

    I would say, based on figures from Krauss (2007, in “Vanishing languages of the Pacific Rim”), that there are about 13,000 speakers of these five languages combined. Central Alaskan Yup’ik has the most by far, with just over 10,000 speakers.

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