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.
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:
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:
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:
I then tried some more muqtuq (or maktak, i.e. whale blubber with skin), which I’ve actually grown to like:
I followed this by trying some frozen raw Arctic cisco fish (another tasty treat):
And, finally, some bearded seal (skin and blubber, both). Eaten raw:
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!
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.
Qakugulu, Utqiagvik! Goodbye, Barrow!