Inupiaq language learners get two intense weeks
Twenty learners of the Inupiaq language spent an intense two weeks together in Nome and the surroundings to develop their ability to build phrases and sentences from the words they already know and thereby take their knowledge of the language to a new level.
Ilisaqativut, which means “Those who learn together,” began last year in Utqiaqvik and was conceived as an intensive two-week class that rotates through Inupiaq country. Next year the class will be in Kotzebue.
Cordelia Kellie and Reid Magdanz met at the Alaska State Legislature where they were working and found they had a common desire to advance their knowledge of the language. “Many of us knew a handful of nouns or verbs but weren’t able to make a sentence,” said Kellie, who is originally from Utqiagvik. “And so that’s what Ilisaqativut focuses on.” The white board in the classroom at Katirvik was filled with complex-looking word and phrase constructions in Inupiaq. “At the same time we open up to all Inupiaq from any region. It’s also meant to build nationhood and relationships with one another. We saw that there wasn’t another mechanism where you could go to a place to learn Inupiaq intensively, at least for a few weeks at a time. People say they have to go to Greenland to be able to learn our language.”
“I got involved because we were both trying to learn Inupiaq,” said Reid Magdanz. “We knew each other from Juneau and we were both involved in some courses thru UAF, through the Chukchi College and Ilisaġvik College. And we both felt the same way about our language acquisition, that it was piecemeal, that every individual learner had to devise their own learning plan.”
Magdanz grew up in Kotzebue and still calls it home. Despite not being of Inupiaq heritage he is interested in the language and with the help of his brother Grant created an Inupiaq keyboard for the iPhone. Achagat is the app, which enables texting with the full Inupiaq alphabet.
“We’ve had quite a diverse group,” said Kellie. “We have people who know a few words up to people who are fluent in the language and have been teaching for decades. But it’s largely a smattering.”
Fluent speakers who participated include Yayuk Alvanna-Stimpfle from Nome and Polly Schaeffer and Lorena Williams from Kotzebue.
Kellie told how they envisioned a place where one could gain insight of what the language looks like on the inside and make it accessible. “So what we try to do is the most difficult things while we’re together. We have the resources, we have the time, and it’s a lot more fun than trying to struggle through it on your own,” she said.
The students are then better equipped for self-study of the language at home on their own. “We really do believe that the responsibility of a language cannot fall on the shoulders of a few. Everybody takes that responsibility back home with them, whether it’s starting their own language group or language circle and really taking ownership of their own learning,” she said.
Miriah Twitchell is of Inupiaq heritage and lives in Juneau. She attended the class because she wants to reconnect with her roots. She was feeling the burdens of life and the class addressed her longing to speak the language she heard from her grandmother. “I needed to fill my toolbox with things that would make my heart and my body stronger,” she said. “I’ve always really missed this piece. It was just something I was aching for. A connection to place, a connection to family.”
Anna Ashenfelter, 28, is from Nome and works at Kawerak. Both of her grandmothers were fluent speakers. “I’ve always had a natural curiosity to learn it, I just never had the opportunity to, I didn’t know where to start, and then this pops up and I said ‘I’m going to go.’”
Debbie Atuk lives in Brooklyn, New York and was in Anchorage visiting her father Richard. They traveled to Nome, where Richard grew up, to help with translating some hymns and they heard about the two-week class and decided to join in. Mr. Atuk was born in Wales and by the age of five was living in Nome. He spoke only Inupiaq at home and when he started school he knew no English. He was once sent to the principal’s office, for what he did not understand, but apparently it was for speaking the only language he knew. “I never really did know what I was sent to the principal for and I kind of ignored the whole thing,” he said. “It passed and eventually I had friends that spoke English and the school taught me and I started speaking English.” His family continued to speak Inupiaq at home. When he was old enough he went hunting with elders in an eight-man skin boat. “So I had that opportunity to be with them, to hear them speak Inupiaq. That’s all they spoke out there. That was one place I got more exposure to my language, which I really appreciate,” he said.
Richard Atuk married a woman from Illinois and English was the family language. He didn’t speak Inupiaq much until he returned to Nome in 1973 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement act. Once again he was speaking with his parents and in the villages, where he traveled in his work, he often spoke the language. His interest was re-kindled when one of his sons became interested in Eskimo dancing. They started going to practices of the King Island Dancers in Anchorage, then traveled to Wales to learn. Missionaries in Wales as in other parts of Alaska had stopped the dancing. “But they were always there,” he said. “We just had to get people’s memories refreshed. We were fortunate that we had elders who could remember those songs after fifty years of no public performing. Before that Wales had a very strong dance culture.”
To his daughter Debbie, he said “You should know your language and you’ll know who you are. You have 10,000 years of history. You’re a Kingikmiut.”
Ilisaqativut is very much a grass roots organization and relies on community partners and local sponsors. Last year in Uqtiagvik it was Ilisaġvik College, this year the sponsor is Kawerak.
“We received $3,000 in donations from Sitnasuak,” said Kellie. “We’ve had incredible support from Kawerak in transportation, an elders’ stipend, the in-kind donation of the facilities. The Village of Solomon provided about four days in lodging and space as well.”