“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:


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 🙂


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