Iḷisavsaaqtuam aakam qaitkaa uqautchiñi kiŋuvaamiñun

A graduate school mom gifts language to the next generation
SEP 2019
Annauk
O.
Linguistics and Philosophy

Aullaqisaqtuq – It is the beginning

Iḷisaguuruŋa Iñupiatun MIT-mi. I study Iñupiaq at MIT.

Iñupiaq is the language of the Alaskan Inuit, whose population numbers 24,500 and whose speakers’ number 2,000. Iñupiaq is considered “moribund,” which means having few or no child speakers because the language is not advancing across generations. Through the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative (MITILI), my family and I are working on revitalizing the Iñupiaq language for the next two years.

MITILI is a unique Master’s program in Linguistics for members of communities whose languages are threatened. The purpose of the program is to empower their graduates with the linguistic knowledge that will help breathe life into their languages. My blog posts will aim to capture the experience of an indigenous graduate school mother, whose primary goals are to cultivate a strong sense of well-being while also raising a 6-month old son Daał in the Iñupiaq language.


Daał and I by the Ray and Maria Stata Center after a Linguistics Graduate Luncheon

Iñupiuraaqta! Let’s speak Iñupiaq!

Each blog post will integrate a specific topic of Iñupiaq language phrases or songs that can be used to speak to Daał while we interact throughout the day. This past May, I attended an Indigenous Language & Curriculum Workshop that encouraged speakers of endangered languages to incorporate a particular domain of language for even just a few minutes a day for a certain period of time, to gradually increase proficiency in the language. When learning a threatened language, it is easy to feel the pressure to learn everything at once or to become “fluent” as fast as possible. Breaking the language down into digestible pieces makes speaking less daunting and more enjoyable. While teaching at a grassroots Iñupiaq language camp called Iḷisiqativut this summer, I wrote a lullaby for Daał titled Iġñiga piqpagiraġa (My son, the one I love) with an elder fluent speaker in the Kobuk Iñupiaq dialect:

Iġñiiŋ piqpagiġikpiñ                 My dear son, I love you
Piqpagiłłalakkikpiñ                   I love you so very much
Piqpaginiaġikpiñ taimuŋa        I will love you forever
Ataramik suli taimuŋa              Always and forever
Uumatigma iḷaginiaġaatin        My heart will be a part of you
Ummatimniittutin                      You are in my heart
Piqpagiġikpiñ                            I love you

The week prior to classes beginning at MIT, I dedicated time each night to sing this lullaby to Daał before bed. Right now, I average speaking to Daał in Iñupiaq about 10 minutes a day. I read him Iñupiaq books titled Maktak Tammaqtuq (Maktak is Lost) and Ugruayaaġlu Avilaitqatiglu (The Infant Seal and Friends), written by Molly Pederson, every other day. Before Daał was born, I had ambitious plans to post sticky note Iñupiaq immersion phrases around my house as a reminder to use them while doing household activities. However, Daał was born 2.5 weeks early, and once he arrived, I barely could keep up with nursing him anywhere between 15 to 25 times a day! To be entirely honest, being a new mom left me feeling very overwhelmed and exhausted for most of the summer. I have since forgiven myself for not speaking as much Iñupiaq as I hoped — and am looking forward to working on it now! During my first graduate semester, my small but attainable goal is to increase my Iñupiaq speaking time with Daał by five minutes each week.

Qaunagivlugu miqłiqtuuraġa aptaruŋa – I am busy caring for my child

These blog posts will also describe the challenges involved with being a graduate school mom. I was 5-months pregnant working full-time in Alaska when I decided to apply to the MITILI program. If it were not for the encouragement of my husband, I might have been too intimidated at the idea of moving across the country with an infant to begin graduate school. During the application period, I entertained many FALSE irrational thoughts about why mothers do not belong in grad school… because young children might require full attention from their mothers…or graduate peers and professors might not take a mother’s academic and home life priorities seriously. Since then, I have come up with a handful of reasons why motherhood and graduate studies go together:

1) Focus and balance. There is a time to do classwork and there is a time to take care of your child. Graduate moms learn to set good boundaries and be present while at home and while studying.

2) Resourcefulness. Motherhood requires a community of people with varying roles to meet the needs of herself and her child. Graduate moms are not afraid to ask for help when they need it, whether it is cooking, cleaning, babysitting, or tutoring.

3) Inspiration and motivation. A mother’s success in school and work is often dependent on her ability to provide a secure future for her child. Giving up is not an option when a child depends on his or her parents for security. 


Daał sleeping while mom attends the Graduate Activity Resource Fair

As I draft this blog, it is 2:28am. Daał and I went to bed around 10:00pm — and after waking up to use the bathroom, I decided that 2:28am is prime time to write because he is likely in a deep sleep! One of my biggest challenges that I predict as a graduate school mom is that Daał really only sleeps when he is beside me. I usually can get him to sleep by nursing him, walking him outside in his wrap or carrier, and driving him around in his car seat. However, he usually will not stay asleep if I am not nearby. Therefore, it becomes very tricky for me to get personal things done while he is sleeping — because he will preemptively wake up if he senses I have escaped!

Aulayaiqsimaruŋa siġġaġnaqtuamun iḷikami – I remain strong while going through a difficult time

Some family members have encouraged me to teach Daał how to sleep without me and to break the association between nursing and sleeping, but we have not made much progress. My friend Shaax’ Saani once told me that a baby is in the womb for 9 months, so it makes sense for the baby to remain close to their mother long after they are born. I think about my Iñupiaq ancestors, who never had cribs, always co-slept with their babies, and typically carried their babies on their back while they worked throughout the day. While I may not be able to raise my child entirely as my ancestors have, I know that my strong community network will make it easier to be away from my son. In addition to my ever-supportive  husband, my parents and my dad’s extended family live near MIT’s campus.

Exercising self-care is just as important as having a strong support system. My ambition is to practice wellness while pursuing my Master’s at MIT. Eating healthy foods and continuing involvement with the martial arts will keep me in good physical shape. Since my extended family lives nearby, weekend trips home or to explore the outdoors will help restore my mental health. Through the MITILI program, I will continue to have regular contact with my Iñupiaq language mentors and elders, one of whom is my own mother. Maintaining contact with elders of our community provides reliable guidance and spiritual wellness. While I do not expect it to be easy to raise a child in an endangered indigenous language while pursuing a Master’s degree at a rigorous school with a commitment to exercising wellness, this is a challenge I am willing to accept and share with those who are brave enough to join.