For thousands of years, Inuit women celebrated womanhood and rites of passage by giving and receiving traditional markings. Two years ago, I received my tavluġun (chin tattoo) through a traditional Inuit hand poke method, where a needle is dipped into ink and then poked into the skin. Part of the meaning behind the two thinnest lines of my tavluġun is reflected in two Iñupiaq values: Iñupiuraallaniq (Knowledge of Language) and Qiksiksrautiqaġniq Innuniaġvigmun (Respect for Nature). While there are many other important Iñupiaq values, I feel most responsible to facilitate access to our Iñupiaq language and strengthen the connection to our land. Restoring both of these values together (represented by the thickest line in the middle of my chin) and passing them on to our children reflects the healing and wholeness of future and past generations. In a sense, my tavluġun is a daily reminder to be disciplined in how I exert my energies and skills, with the purpose of enhancing the wellness of the Iñupiaq community, my family, and future generations.
The strength of Iñupiaq identity is found in the connection to our land and our language. The Iñupiaq language provides us with specific instructions about how to harmonize our relationships with our relatives and within the natural world. When the connection to our land and the language is severed, our Iñupiat identities, our relationship with our loved ones and our natural world become strained. The decision to work on both climate justice and language revitalization in the last five years is a personal and meaningful pursuit, but it is also in response to the endangered status of Iñupiaq and the rapidly changing climate in the Arctic. Throughout this blogpost, I will raise important questions written in the Iñupiaq language, that our Arctic indigenous communities must address.
Sut allaŋŋuqpat Iñuuniaġviptigni nunakun, siḷakun, taġiukun? What is changing in our environment: the land, the air, the ocean?
Those of us who live in the Arctic see firsthand the accelerating impact of climate change, which is altering our intimate connection to the natural world. According to the 2019 NOAA Arctic Report Card, the annually-averaged surface air temperature anomaly was recorded as +1.9 degrees C for October 2018-September 2019, which is the second highest value (after 2015-16) since 1900. Annually, average Arctic air temperatures for the past six years (2014-19) all exceeded prior records since 1900. What does this mean for Alaska Native people?
Uqaġniaqtugut qavsit iñuit iñuuniaġnikun. We will talk about how the people’s way of life will be impacted.
A warming Arctic means that traditional foods are lessening and it is becoming more hazardous to hunt and fish. In a cultural sense, we must reevaluate how to manifest our Iñupiaq identities as our lands and foods that we rely upon, physically and spiritually, are altering or diminishing. Additionally, thawing permafrost, decreasing Arctic sea ice extent, and more frequent storm surges threaten homes, schools, airports, and utilities. Arctic Indigenous communities are the first to experience the permanent loss of their homelands induced by climate change, despite how they have contributed least to climate change.
Iḷisaqtuŋa alaŋŋuġniŋagun nunam. I study climate change.
Relatives preparing to return to Shishmaref by boat after seal hunting
As a tribal member of the Native Village of Shishmaref, an island community of 600+ residents on the Chukchi Sea, I have seen how the ocean has reclaimed hundreds of feet of land that I once played on as a child. Intense erosion and flooding affect 184 out of 213 Alaska Native villages, with dozens of these communities planning to relocate their homes to stable ground. From 2015 to 2019, I was part of a team to assist eight Alaska Native villages install community-based monitoring of erosion and/or permafrost thaw. Information gathered by local community members helped inform decision-making and governance processes related to long-term adaptation. Government agencies analyze this data to understand predictive rates of change at a local level so that communities can determine whether to protect in place or relocate to safer ground.
Iḷsaqtugut alaŋŋuġniŋagun nunam. We study climate change.
Even as the majority of my day is dedicated to the Iñupiaq language, I remain connected to climate justice work. As the Senior Advisor to the Alaska Institute for Justice, I regularly join monthly teleconference calls with representatives from 15 Alaska Native villages to share environmental observations and adaptation responses. At MIT, I attended three of the four MIT Climate Symposia events: Progress in Climate Science, Challenges of Climate Policy, and Economy-wide Deep Decarbonization. Missing from these discussions are the steps critical for MIT’s immediate action plan for fossil fuel divestment.
Furthermore, no acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and stewardship of the land as a model for reversing environmental catastrophe, was conveyed during the symposia. Noam Chomsky, MIT Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, reminds me that it is possible engage in the theoretical academic world while also engaging in activism to resist the forces of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Chomsky attempts to educate the Western world in what indigenous peoples have been practicing since time immemorial: “Indigenous people across the world are the ones keeping the human race from destroying itself”.
Taamna, qanuglugu umialgutikput nunaptigni-ittuaq, taġiumi-ittuaq, siḷami-ittuaq, atuġniaqpisigu sivunmuktaaqsaġluta Iñuuniqput? What will help us keep a healthy identity in the midst of rapid environmental change of the land, sea, and air that will affect all of our cultural activities?
In moments of despair and frustration at the state of our ecological climate in 2020, I find sanctuary and healing in studying the Iñupiaq language. As a graduate student of Linguistics, sometimes I feel a sense of guilt for shifting focus from the decade dedicated to grassroots organizing, policy change, and community building to an academic program focused on syntax, language acquisition, and curriculum writing. If nation states and communities do not significantly cut greenhouse gases now, will we even have a habitable climate to study linguistics or pass on language in the next two or three generations?
At the same time, building Iñupiaq language capacity in our communities creates a meaningful sense of interconnectedness and pride, even as our physical world seems increasingly unstable. An Unangan elder, Larry Merculieff, once told me that we cannot just focus on dismantling the external colonial forces that attempt to undermine us, we must build up the internal strength and wellness of our individual selves and our community members. What will remain of our Iñupiaq identity once we are inevitably uprooted from our lands? I believe that the revival of the Iñupiaq language is the life-giving source that can connect our future generations to the physical, spiritual, and cultural world of our Iñupiaq ancestors.
Sut aññiqsutauvat nunaaqiḷḷaani, igliktuat Iñupiagunipta sivunmuktaaġutiksraŋanni?
What is working in our communities to keep our languages alive?
Keeping our language alive means providing a strong Iñupiaq language background for our Iñupiaq language teachers. Between 2016 and 2018, I was a part of a community collective in Anchorage, AK that teaches the Iñupiaq language in a grassroots and an institutional level. I made a decision to take a break from teaching Iñupiaq to the community because my language skills needed to improve greatly. This involved taking college courses: Iñupiaq Language Through Storytelling, Intermediate Iñupiaq I and II, and Iñupiaq Grammar Overview for Iñupiaq Language Teachers (offered at Iḷisaġvik College or the University of Alaska Fairbanks). For those who want to learn Iñupiaq, our universities must offer affordable Iñupiaq language courses with the intent to generate conversational Iñupiaq speakers.
Most helpful to increasing my conversational Iñupiaq skills, as mentioned in my previous blog, was meeting with an elder to speak only Iñupiaq for an hour or more every week. Now, as a Linguistics graduate student, I am learning additional tools to make sense of Iñupiaq grammar so that the language can be taught in a more accessible manner. While most of my energy has been directed toward improving Iñupiaq on an individual level, these benefits will potentially serve my community more effectively in the long run. Financial support to compensate fluent elder speakers to teach Iñupiaq language apprentices is critical. These Iñupiaq language apprentices are the future teachers for effective Iñupiaq language nests and immersion schools.
Aasii suli atautchikauġluta: iñuullaaluta, aŋuyaqaaġiigluta, nunaaqqiqatiguvlu aasii suli allat savagviit taputilugit qanuq suaŋŋak taaġniaqpisigu taimuŋa kiŋuvaaksraptignun tuktitchaġlugi? What we must do as communities, families, individuals, and organizations to sustain our language into future generations?
Although I am not yet “fluent” in the Iñupiaq language, the motivation to speak to my son Daał gives me hope. Working on an Iñupiaq immersion curriculum to support the Iñupiaq language speakers of the next generations gives me hope. At home, my mom Nuluqutaaq and I often declare meal times as “Iñupiaq language speaking only” time. My son hears Iñupiaq spoken by his mom and his grandma on a regular basis. In a society where English is dominant, being disciplined to claim Iñupiaq in our home, little by little, is a revolutionary act.
For my Independent Study at MIT, I create Iñupiaq immersion lesson plans that will potentially be used to teach my son Daał in an Iñupiaq immersion head start program. Beginning as an individual, a family member, and a community member, each day we must strategically use our collective energies to advance our Iñupiaq language, lands, and identities forward.
*The Iñupiaq sentences were shared and corrected by Edna Ahgeak MacLean during a mentor-apprenticeship meeting on March 13, 2018 and June 16, 2019. I am immensely thankful for Edna’s continual guidance and support.