Reflections and Closing Thoughts

After spending this past week in the dark, frozen reaches of the village of Barrow, Alaska – located 320 miles above the Arctic Circle – I sit here in the lobby of the Sheraton Anchorage hotel enjoying some much-needed simple creature comforts of life.  As I look all around, a fountain display in the center of the elegant lobby, with its flowing, running water, creates a nice aural background to the Russian and Japanese that I now hear being spoken by tourists and families sitting behind me, languages which have now replaced the ubiquitous Iñupiaq and accented English I heard throughout this past week.

Still, although my experiences in Barrow now seem like only a slowly fading memory, I cannot get the thought out of my head that from an Iñupiaq language perspective, the Alaskan North Slope Borough is in a crisis.  This thought has somehow connected with my heart over the last few days to create within me a feeling of urgency that some tangible, concrete steps must be taken soon by the elders of not only Barrow but of all of the other villages in the NSB (who each sent representatives to the conference) before it is too late – villages such as Anaktuvuk Pass, Atqasuk, Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Point Hope, Point Lay, and Wainwright.

Throughout the week during the conference, I was inspired on a daily basis by the stories shared by each representative speaker, stories of an interwoven history, struggle, and hope for the future.  On more than one occasion, I overheard the natives speaking about the need for healing within their communities – healing from a past where their integrity as a people was constantly under threat because of outsiders’ interests.  Also on more than one occasion, tears were shed by speakers and audience members alike, myself included.

The Iñupiat are a proud people, with deep roots as the dominant culture that has inhabited the Arctic region going back millenia.  The preservation of their language remains a top priority for them for obvious reasons, and it is my hope that Rosetta Stone will play an integral role in ensuring this happens today.

Here is a snapshot I received yesterday from Patuk Glenn, museum curator at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, that she took during one of my workshops:

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I find this particular photo to be interesting because it showcases nicely the interest that exists between both the older and newer generations of Iñupiat people in their language, which is sacred to them.

Also, here is a random photo of me at the conclusion of the conference, posing on the tundra with Miss WEIO – World Eskimo Indian Olympics (which includes events such as an ear-tugging competition!).  She was very, very kind, and hailed all the way from Kotzebue, AK.  You can see her wearing her sash and a small brown and ivory crown, which she proudly wore all day, every day of the conference.

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In closing, I’m eternally grateful to have had this unique opportunity to experience a land, a life, and a culture so vastly different from my own.  In the process, I learned a lot about my own self through my interactions with the Iñupiat, both young and old.  It is my sincerest hope and wish that I will one day return to this remote, fragile, and magical land and either continue with the work that has been started, or perhaps many years into the future, be a witness to the revitalization of the Iñupiaq language.

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For further reading, please feel free to take a look at the North Slope Borough website for a message from its first female mayor, Charlotte Brower:

http://www.north-slope.org/

Final Conference Day

Today I had the honor and privilege of working with Dr. Edna MacLean, who has worked with Rosetta Stone previously during the initial development stages of the RS Iñupiatun program.  Dr. MacLean is a remarkable woman whose achievements in the area of Iñupiaq language preservation are second to none.  In addition to developing and teaching the Iñupiaq language B.A. degree program courses at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she is also the President Emeritus of Iḷisaġvik College here in Barrow (it is the only tribally-controlled college in Alaska and is the northernmost accredited community college in the United States).  Dr. MacLean is familiar with the RS program but wanted a more in-depth look at Rosetta Stone Manager (especially the Reporting aspect), so I was happy to deliver this for her.  Granted, we were both tired from a full day at the conference in the Heritage Center, so our development session took place after everyone had gone home for the day, in the Tuzzy Consortium Library adjacent to the Center.  She has a strong vision for use of the program within the community and, as an adjunct professor, she will be teaching an Iñupiaq Grammar 111 class at the college this coming spring semester.  Among her many accomplishments is having written the comprehensive Iñupiaq dictionary as well as a book on grammar (which I saw for sale at the Heritage Center today!).

I also had an opportunity today to sit in on the “Iñupiaq Language Teachers Panel:  Teaching Our Iñupiaq Language” workshop, which was very inspirational – as Iñupiaq language teachers from within the community shared their ideas and visions on how ordinary people can help one another to sustain their language.  They asked critical questions throughout the workshop, and oftentimes their commentaries received applause from those of us in the audience.

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In addition, it was very encouraging that more and more people came up to me today to ask me about Rosetta Stone Iñupiaq, including a deaf Iñupiat from one of the villages in the North Slope Borough!  I was able to at least minimally communicate with her using the very limited ASL that I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up over the years.

It was also very encouraging to see much more use of the Rosetta Stone kiosks by the end of the conference.  Pictured below, you’ll see some Iñupiat youth gathered around the computers at the Heritage Center, having a great time with the program:

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Having seen me there for the previous two days and hearing me speak tiny bits and pieces of their language throughout, I had a feeling that people were more open to coming up to me and trusted me enough to realize that I was there to help and not to take anything away from them.  Residents of the North Slope Borough (also known simply as “NSB”, which, incidentally, is larger than 39 U.S. states in land area) form very tight-knit communities.  For reasons based on the history of the Iñupiat people, this often poses challenges to those who are coming in from the outside, even if they come with the best of intentions.  Here is an image of the NSB, for perspective:

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Cute story:  I was saving my very last RS stress ball to hand it out to someone at the right moment.  Right next to my table, I noticed a small child (no older than 1.5 years old) playing with his parents, and they were speaking in Iñupiaq to each other.  The mother then switched to English and looked over at me and said, while pointing to her little son, “He keeps looking at you.  I think he wants to work for Rosetta Stone!”  We had a good little laugh among us, and I then reached into my laptop bag and pulled out the stress ball branded with our logo and handed it over to him, telling his mother, “Then I think this is a fitting toy for your son!”  She really seemed to like this gesture, and this opened up her curiosity to start asking me questions about the program.  I was happy to provide details and directed her on how to obtain a license through the NSB after going through several lessons and activities with her.

Still, I think there is a real opportunity to increase awareness of the program within the community.  I’m going to write some recommendations and share them with Dr. MacLean and Patuk in order to help them make the most use of their purchased licenses once I get back to Virginia.

On an exciting cultural note, I was invited for lunch to the home of the sister of one of the respected community members that I’ve been working with over the past three days (who is one of two simultaneous English-Iñupiaq interpreters that worked at the conference), to experience a true Iñupiaq Eskimo meal.

I started off with caribou soup:

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I then tried some more muqtuq (or maktak, i.e. whale blubber with skin), which I’ve actually grown to like:

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I followed this by trying some frozen raw Arctic cisco fish (another tasty treat):

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And, finally, some bearded seal (skin and blubber, both).  Eaten raw:

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I would personally not recommend that you ever try eating seal.  Ever.  I now understand why Anthony Zimmern, of all people, had such a negatively visceral reaction when eating this while taping “Bizarre Foods:  Alaska”.  However, my hosts would never have known of my beyond intense distaste for seal.  I kept right on eating it and smiled while screaming bloody murder inside (yes, it really is that off-putting to those of us not used to it).  I was conscious to be polite and respectful, remaining especially cognizant of the fact that I was invited to eat in their home and that perhaps not a lot of outsiders get such a unique opportunity to do so.

We topped off an otherwise delicious and healthy meal with a dessert of frozen salmonberries with condensed milk and a bit of sugar.  This was very delicious!

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At the conclusion of the conference, everyone got together in the largest room at the Center to sing a hymn in Iñupiaq (at 0:22, you can hear me giving it my best attempt!):

In the evening, I was also invited to attend an “aġġi”, which is a traditional Iñupiat Eskimo dance ceremony.  This unique cultural event was fascinating to watch and listen to.  The video below is an interpretation depicting a bowhead whale-hunting scene, were the crew members in the “boat” first row out into the Arctic Ocean after having spotted a whale, under the leadership of the whaling captain (as he is known and called in the community), then proceeding to victoriously harpoon it.  The Iñupiat believe that when they are out on an expedition, when a whale comes close to the boat, it is because its spirit is offering itself to the community for subsistence purposes and has accepted its physical death in exchange for a continued respect of nature by the village.  It’s a beautiful story and beautiful way of looking at the sacred circle of life that exists here in the tundra.

I will share my final, closing thoughts tomorrow from Anchorage, after I have departed this truly unique little village in this remote, frozen corner of the world.

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Qakugulu, Utqiagvik!  Goodbye, Barrow!

“Our Tongues are Broken…”

Today marks day two of the Elders & Youth Conference here at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska – and, wow, what an intense but great day already (and it is barely half over).  I’m writing this from the comfort of Arctic Pizza, while I wait for my lunchtime food to arrive, overlooking the Arctic Ocean once again.

One of the workshops held this morning was titled “Iñupiaq Language Planning”.  Patuk invited me to join one of the many groups that were gathering in this particular workshop so that I could participate first-hand.  I hesitated at first, wanting to simply be an observer and not interfere with their planning; however, Patuk insisted that I join – which I did – allowing me to listen to the stories and offer any input that I could from my perspective as an outsider looking in.

Here is a video of a village elder speaking in Iñupiaq:

http://youtu.be/qN49SUiR5f8

Our assignment was to create an inspiring statement that points the way to the future, as Iñupiat people, in order for them to work toward it together from the perspective of the elders passing on their language to the youth.  Each one of us in the group contributed and shared stories with one another, and I learned first-hand that the Iñupiaq language is at a crossroads of sorts.  Because Iñupiaq is an endangered language, it is the responsibility of the community elders, collectively, to ensure that the language lives on for generations to come.  However, they are presently struggling to find the best method(s) to ensure that this happens successfully.

The guidelines for our statement suggested that the statement be:

  • Desired
  • Bold
  • Affirmative
  • Grounded
  • Unconditionally positive

Our group decided together that the best approach for us to take would be for each one of us to contribute an individual statement from our unique perspective (I was the only non-Iñupiaq speaker), and we would then combine the spirit of all of our statements to formulate a singular overarching statement that would encapsulate all of our points of view.

After hearing from the two young persons in our group (it was them plus four elders plus myself) reflecting that in their attempts to learn Iñupiaq, they would often be ridiculed by the elders whenever they would make mistakes in pronunciation or grammar, my contribution focused on developing language-learning confidence in Iñupiaq.  Iñupiaq is not an easy language to learn, by any means, making the task that much more formidable.

I decided to take this approach centering around confidence because later in the day, during the Rosetta Stone workshop, my plan is to speak to the fact that our program provides the learner with exactly that - confidence.  I could tie the two together and show them that they can achieve this confidence, with hard work and practice, through Rosetta Stone.  My thought to share is that if a Westerner like myself can learn a bit of Iñupiaq using Rosetta Stone, imagine what they – who actually are a part of the culture where the language is spoken and signs in Iñupiaq are seen on a daily basis – can achieve.

Ultimately, it was decided that the following would be our collective statement:

Ilittilugit Iñupiaqtanik uqapiaġlutiŋ nikaillutiŋ ikayuġlugit.
We learn through the Iñupiaq way to speak Iñupiaq with confidence and support.

Upon returning from lunch, I was invited to attend the “Iñupiaq Language Systemic Planning” workshop, which was a more in-depth and intense continuation of this morning’s workshop.  Elders from many of the villages in the North Slope Borough spoke and shared stories about the difficulties and challenges that their communities face with Iñupiaq and its many dialects.  One very respected elder made a sad realization regarding the recent history of their language and quite painfully and plainly stated to the somber audience, “Our tongues are broken.”  This was a deep, powerful statement, addressing the lack of acceptance of Iñupiaq as the Iñupiat people’s language by non-natives in years past.

After this intense workshop, I then set up for my own afternoon Rosetta Stone workshop; this time, there were between three and four times the amount of attendees as I had during my first workshop yesterday, which was very encouraging and nice to see.

It was also very inspiring to see people today using the Rosetta Stone program at both of the computers set up for it at the Heritage Center!

Finishing up the day, I was invited by Patuk to attend a “singspiration” at the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church.  I’ll go to that and try to take a video (or at the very least some audio) of the songs as the locals sing them.  Looking forward to tomorrow – the last day of the Elders & Youth Conference!

Oh, and here’s the video of me eating muqtuq – bowhead whale :-)

Elders & Youth Conference – Day 1

What a day!

Today marked the opening of the Elders & Youth Conference here in Barrow.  My day started at 8am AKST, with a ride courtesy of Arcticab to the Iñupiat Heritage Center for a nice continental breakfast with the community elders and youth, hosted by Ilisaġvik College, the local community college.  It was noticeably colder today than yesterday, and the conference, of course, got off to a start in darkness, as the morning twilight wouldn’t appear until much later in the morning.  While I was setting up the Rosetta Stone table, the elders and youth were in an adjoining room at the Heritage Center saying an opening prayer and singing Iñupiat hymns.  It was so nice to hear them, and I could only wonder what they were saying – but I imagined, of course, that it was something deeply spiritual and inspiring to set the tone and mood for the conference.

At registration, we were each given a nice hoodie and name badge:

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The hoodie reads, “Kiikaa Iñupiaqta,” which roughly translates to, “Let’s go Iñupiaq.”

I apologize in advance for the quality of the photos in today’s entry – something weird happened to my camera yesterday so the pictures turned out kind of otherworldly for whatever reason.  Maybe the cold finally got to my camera or something.  Once again, it is incredibly cold here, and my poor continental-U.S.-piece-of-technology simply isn’t used to such extreme temperatures.  But I digress…

Each conference attendee and exhibitor alike had to fill out a registration form in order to receive his or her name badge.  The registration form asked what village I was from, so I had to get clarification on whether I should enter “Harrisonburg, Virginia” or “Barrow” as my village.  We were already off to an interesting start.

Luckily, as the first exhibitor that showed up, I had my pick of the tables, so I picked the one that would draw the most attention and was most centrally located and directly in front of the large window that had a gorgeous view of the vast snowy tundra and horizon where twilight would appear a few hours later.

I immediately began setting up while it was still dark out:

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I eventually had to move my table off to the side due to a simple lack of a nearby electrical outlet.  Once I got everything fully squared away, all throughout the day I had several elders and youth (as well as other visitors) stop by the table and ask questions about the program and Iñupiaq language-learning using Rosetta Stone.  Elders’ reactions ran the gamut, from wonder and surprise to suspicion, while youth was much more open to the idea.  Both made comments that they liked the fact that some of the images were of their world, while what they didn’t like about their program is that most of the images were of a world and people to which they didn’t really have much, if any, exposure.  I fully understood; Barrow (and the other villages in the North Slope Borough from what I understand) can be rather insular.

One visitor beamed with joy upon recognizing her two sons in the program!  Another visitor, with her baby in tow on her back, asked me to show her the Iñupiaq Level 3 content and she proceeded to go through several slides quite happily, with baby quiet as a whistle just observing the hustle and bustle all around him.

In fact, Patuk Glenn, museum curator, is in one of the first images in Level 1, Unit 1, Lesson 1 of the Iñupiaq program!

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At lunchtime, the entire foyer of the Heritage Center quickly turned into a giant family-style buffet cafeteria and dining room.  I was careful to wait until all of the elders had been served first, and then Christy, who works at the front desk at the Center, advised me to get in line to pick up my plate of delicious spaghetti and meatballs, along with salad and garlic bread – which I happily did.  I brought my plate back to the Rosetta Stone table, by which time there were people sitting all around me on both sides and in front, including (I later learned) the North Slope Borough representative to the Alaska State Legislature.

After lunch, I resumed manning the table and answering questions while demonstrating the program every single time and handing out pamphlets.

At 3:00pm, I gathered my things and went to the youth library in the Center and proceeded to set up for a workshop:

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In this workshop, I had only a handful of youth show up, to whom I explained the program and its structure, and we spent most of the next hour going through the various types of Focused Activities (they really enjoyed the Speaking activities so we placed extra emphasis on those).  Proficiency levels in Iñupiaq varied greatly with my workshop participants, and I made sure that everyone had a chance to practice their language with the Rosetta Stone program.  They seemed to enjoy it immensely, and there was no shortage of smiles and laughter with this group.  It was truly a nice experience facilitating this workshop!  For their efforts, I ensured that they each received a “Change the World” Rosetta Stone button, so that they would have a little memento by which they could remember the workshop.

After the workshop, I returned back to the foyer and began breaking down the table, as it appeared that the conference was wrapping up for the day.

As people were making their way out into the darkness and cold of the late afternoon (it was significantly colder than the previous day), Patuk asked me if I wanted to join them for an Iñupiat potluck at the Piuraagvik Recreation Center.  I was happy to attend, so I quickly made my way back to the Airport Inn hotel (this time in a local Alaska Cab), grabbed my bags and suitcases, and proceeded on to the Top of the World Hotel to check in for the evening.

My room at this hotel is significantly larger and more modern, and the frozen Arctic Ocean is literally just feet from my window.  It makes for a pretty cool view; however, while I’ve been in my room it has only been dark out.  Still, it’s cool to know that the ocean is only a stone’s throw away.  Due to the proximity of the hotel to the ocean, I was humorously advised by the front desk agent against wandering out in the nighttime, as polar bears can obviously blend in very well with their surroundings and are more prone to come closer into town.

Still, I managed to find a new friend in the front lobby of the Top of the World Hotel:

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After getting quickly settled in to my new room, I took an Alaska Cab to “the Piuraagvik”, as it’s called locally.  When I entered, the smells of all kinds of seafood and other edibles immediately struck me, as did seeing dozens upon dozens upon dozens of people sitting at tables, happily enjoying their meal, many of whom I noticed were eating with their hands – which I thought was cool.  I got in line and when I got to the serving tables, the servers where kind enough to explain to me what I was about to eat:  Arctic goose soup, a type of young cod, another type of unknown fish, and of course, muqtuq – bowhead whale!

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The whale was interesting.  At first, it didn’t seem to have much flavor and the skin was rather chewy, but then I got hints of butter and almond from the whale blubber.  It was surprisingly pleasant, actually.  I also snapped a video for Hunter, who asked that I videotape my first experience eating whale (which was a great suggestion; the video is kind of funny).  I’ll try to upload it in the next couple of days.

Once the potluck was over, I volunteered to help break down the dozens of tables, and with help from many other attendees, the Piuraagvik was back to normal in no time.

After that, it was time to come back to the hotel and get some rest before doing it all over again.

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What you see out of the window, that snowy expanse that goes on into the darkness of the night, is the Chukchi Sea portion of the Arctic Ocean.  It’s that close!

Of course, the night simply wouldn’t have been complete without a Rosetta Stone commercial to remind you that you are in the right place at the right time, even in a place as remote and isolated – and as magical – as Barrow, Alaska.

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Barrow

I finally made it to Barrow, after 27 hours of traveling in the air and being at or in seven different airports. I’m admittedly tired and jet-lagged and am functioning purely on the simple rush of being here in northern Alaska, a place unlike any other in which I have ever been.

The short, two-block walk from Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport here in Barrow to the Airport Inn gave me my first real taste of just how cold it is here in the Arctic. Fortunately, I brought some good winter clothing with me; that being said, by the time I arrived at the hotel only a few short minutes later, I couldn’t feel the lower half of my face (it was beyond just simply being numb).  It was so nice to finally make it to my warm, cozy room. However, there was to be no immediate rest for the weary, as there was work to be done, food to be eaten, and people to meet prior to the conference tomorrow, and I had to take advantage of the few twilight hours that are available during this time of the year here in this part of the state.

Here is a video I took shortly after checking in, on my way from the hotel here on Momeganna Street to have a quick lunch at Pepe’s North of the Border, on Agvik Street:

Next up are a few images showing my walk to the restaurant as well as of some interesting menu finds (in no particular order):

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I also went to the Iñupiat Heritage Center and introduced myself to Patuk Glenn, museum curator.  She advised me on the setup for tomorrow so that I could get a better idea of how everything would fit together now that I was at the museum in person.  While there, I took a tour of the museum and learned even more about the fascinating Iñupiat culture, history, customs, and traditions by means of the many relics and artifacts that have been carefully preserved for future generations of visitors.

By about 3:00pm AKST, the twilight was starting to fade away into darkness, and it was time to come back to the hotel, so I opted for a walk across the tundra by myself, just me and nature.  The picture below was taken at about 3:30pm once I made it back to my hotel room:

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As the evening comes to a close, it’s time to go grab some dinner and then head back to get a good night’s rest in order to get an early start on the busy day that tomorrow promises to be.  I’m looking forward to meeting the locals and other conference exhibitors to show them how Rosetta Stone can help with the teaching, promotion, and preservation of the Iñupiatun language!

Anchorage

I’ve just arrived at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.  The plane ride from Seattle was nice and smooth, and luckily I booked a window seat so that I could prop my head against the window and get some decent rest.  Considering that it was a nighttime flight, it was visually interesting only as we departed from Seattle and just as we made our way into Anchorage.  Even though it was dark out, I could still see the jagged creases and outlines of the snow-covered mountains that we flew, admittedly, uncomfortably close over, as well as large and small chunks of ice in the waters around the city of Anchorage itself.

Since the Combi jet entrance for passengers was located in the rear of the plane, I was one of the first out.  We had to exit down some stairs propped up against the plane as it stood out on the frozen tarmac – giving me my first taste of Alaskan winter.  It was definitely cold, but surprisingly not as cold as I thought it would be.

Let’s see if I’m singing the same tune when I arrive in Fairbanks in a few hours!

Photos from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

Here are some photos I took while waiting for my connecting flight to Fairbanks.  Unfortunately, those of us continuing on to points past Fairbanks were unable to exit the aircraft when we arrived in Fairbanks as well as in Deadhorse / Prudhoe Bay.  Despite my requests for either a window seat or aisle seat throughout the entire flight, the majority of my connections found me traveling in the middle seat, neither a comfortable circumstance nor conducive to getting some much-needed rest.

The photos below definitely drove home the fact that I was no longer in the lower 48:

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