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Iñupiaq summit in Kotzebue focuses on relationship-building

Iñupiaq language revitalization efforts continued at a summit held Jan. 24-25 in Kotzebue.

The Iñupiaq summit in Kotzebue aimed to serve as a meeting of Iñupiat largely from the North Slope, Northwest Arctic and Bering Straits regions. The summit differs from “Ilisaqativut,” a two-week long learning intensive held in Nome, in that it primarily stressed relationship building across regions.

Students sang “It’s A Small World,” among other songs, translated to Iñupiaq. The crowd couldn’t help but smile at the youth speaking and singing their Native language -- something an event like Kipiġniutit Iñupiuraallanikun hopes to promote more of.

Kipiġniutit Iñupiuraallanikun means ‘through speaking our languages, we are passionate,'" said Qiġñaaq Cordelia Kellie, one of the event’s organizers. "The ‘Kipiġniutit’ is the ‘we are passionate,’ and the ‘Iñupiuraallanikun’ is ‘through speaking our languages.’”

The idea to hold the summit happened at the Alaska Native Languages Revitalization Institute, an event held by UAF during the summer. 

The summit was a chance for Iñupiaq speakers to connect from across the state: primarily the North Slope, Northwest Arctic, and Bering Straits.

“We realized with our language covering such a vast portion of the state there was opportunity for us to really come together and grow relationships, respect, and trust for one another, and really grow a sense of Iñupiaq nationhood and come together as one," Kellie said. "We also understand that we all have our own community dialects, regional dialects, village dialects, but that we have one language. And that which we have in common is really our strength.”

At the start of the summit, Kunaq Marjorie Tahbone lit a traditional lamp, the Naniq, a reminder of strength that also invites ancestors into the space.

“Our ancestors are here with us today; they’re shoulder-to-shoulder because they’re so proud of us for being here. I can feel their energy through the flame; you can see that their presence is here," Tahbone said. "Having the seal oil lamp, the Naniq, be lit is a ceremony for us to have a healing path and healing journey.”

Elders Tarruq and Aġnik Schaeffer followed with a talk. Aġnik addressed the crowd entirely in Iñupiaq. Tarruq spoke about the importance of understanding one’s Iñupiaq identity, especially for youth.

But it doesn’t stop at knowing who you are, he said. It’s about making young people proud of who they are, through knowing and embracing a culture and a language that has been systematically stripped.

He points out the Iñupiaq language is usually “pigeon-holed” as a school elective, if even that, and that doesn’t help. 

He thinks that until Iñupiaq identity is a part of the everyday curriculum, then identity and grappling with self-worth will remain issues for Iñupiat.

Shifting gears from systematic learning, participants explored ways of bringing Iñupiaq into the home in a session called “The Language of Child Raising.”

“These are the ways I’m teaching my son, through song, through reading these books,” said Panigruaq Raymond Ipalook, who is passionate about teaching Iñupiaq to his young son.

In a circle, he passes around illustrated children’s books featuring animals -- like moose and foxes -- native to Alaska. They’re written entirely in Iñupiaq, a project done by UAF for the Bilingual Education Program of the Alaska Rural School Project.

Raymond said he tries to read one to his child once every hour.

Several parents express the difficulty that comes with being a second-language learner, but simultaneously, the beauty in being able to learn with their children.

One expecting mother describes decorating her nursery with printed-out Iñupiaq words and phrases, reminding herself to practice them now, and soon with her newborn.

Other sessions focused on a range of topics including

  • revitalizing language at the local level,
  • teaching methods, 
  • strategies for fluent speakers, and 
  • literature translation.

Participants from across the three regions were united by the common goal of spreading Iñupiaq language and culture through various means, whether that looks like imploring schools to hire more bilingual staff, using VHF radio for language lessons, or connecting former students to new ones.
Cordelia Kellie said the group will hold its first joint commission call in February to continue planning and organizing initiatives.

Based on the event’s success in bringing communities across the state together in one place, Kellie said things are looking positive for the future of Iñupiaq language revitalization.

“When UAF decided they were going to put together a language revitalization institute, sometimes you wonder where that energy goes, and what actually happens with that investment," she said. "But that this is happening six months later, unifying three different regions with one language, it’s just one example of how somebody can say ‘we’re going to host something, we’re going to make this a priority for our community.’ You don’t know what’s going to happen, but amazing things do happen … and we’re just trusting that more incredible things are going to happen, and our language is going to continue growing.”

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