Jeremy Johnson is an elections supervisor based in Fairbanks. He phoned the tribal office in Birch Creek, which has a population of 33 according to the 2010 census. There are 13 registered voters in the Gwich’in Athabascan community near the Yukon river. It’s too small to have a polling station and the only way that voters can get to the one in Fort Yukon is to fly, drive a snowmachine or dog team, ski there, or take a boat when the river’s not frozen.
“They are so geographically isolated from the polling location,” says Johnson, “so that they are what we call 'permanent absentee voting locations.'”
Under the terms of a Voting Rights Act court settlement, the state is required to provide Birch Creek with a bilingual elections outreach worker. The settlement requires the state to ask the tribal governments in specific communities to refer people who have the expertise to provide local indigenous language assistance. The state pays for the help, though the money’s not great.
Johnson doesn’t remember if it was Birch Creek or one of the other six small communities included in the court settlement that he made the call to a couple of years ago, but he remembers the answer that he got from the village tribal office.
“They said 'Oh no no. We don’t need that. Everyone here speaks English.'"
Johnson could have documented his call and gone on with his other tasks, having met the letter of the law, but he really wanted to help the voters in the village. He just didn't know how.
“So it behooves me to contact the school or call the tribe back, and then get another opinion. Sometimes it’s not possible to get that service.”
At this week’s Language Summit, held by the state Elections Division, Johnson was still looking for help and asking for referrals. He also presented the training program he provides and the translated material he uses. When he passed out the Gwich’in 2016 election pamphlet he hit another impasse. None of the three Athabascan and Gwich’in people at the conference could read it.
“I can’t read it,” said Elva Ansaknok, who is from Fort Yukon. “I’m from Gwitchyaa. That’s the language I talk.”
She understood the audio version of the material, and said that dialects are not a problem when she speaks with others.
“Yeah. We can have conversation really easy without knowing that we’re talking different dialects.”
“These languages have always been oral," said Indra Arriaga, the Election Language Assistance Compliance Manager at the Division of Elections. “From what I can see in history is you use that [not being able to read and write the language] as a way to suppress them, and that’s not what we want to do. So we’re doing both. We’re doing audio and we’re doing written as far as we can, but the priority in those villages is definitely the audio because they should not be punished because they come from a different tradition.”
Arriaga knows that her translators are experts in their languages, but meeting the legal requirements for a written ballot and election materials remains a problem. She remembers working with one person in the Koyukon Athabscan dialect two years ago. She asked her to write the translation down.
“She said, 'I have never written it down.' And I asked, 'what would it take?'”
It was the first time that the translator had tried to write her language. To do that work, she had to invent the spelling for words as best she could.
In some parts of the state like the Bethel region, an area of Alaska where the language is still strong and has the best chance of survival, Yup'ik linguists like Cecelia Martz and Marie Mead spent years working hard to write books and develop curriculum to make sure that the next generation of speakers learned to write the language as well as read it. That work has not been done throughout the state, leaving bureaucrats at the Division of Elections and the language experts working with them doing the best that they can.