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Ilisaqativut: Twelve learners, Two weeks, One language at the top of the world

Story shared by Cordelia Qignaaq Kellie and Reid Paaluk Magdanz

The Qargizine, Summer 2017 #7

As typical for the latter two weeks of May, Utqiaġvik hosted thousands of niġligit, plenty of snow and mud, and community members working hard to refill their freezers. In 2017, Utqiaġvik also hosted something new during those long spring days: Iḷisaqativut.

Twelve Iñupiaq language learners, representing all regions where Iñupiatun is spoken, met those two weeks on the Iḷisaġvik College campus. Together, we devoted ourselves to full-time Iñupiaq study, working with each other, talking with speakers in the community, struggling at times, but always laughing.

With Iḷisaqativut, we chose to experiment in several ways, most notably by challenging second-language learners to take it upon themselves to not only learn Iñupiaq but also to share the knowledge they already had. At one point, a community member came by our class and asked, “Who is the teacher?” She looked a little astonished when we replied, “Ourselves.”

Iḷisaqativut arose out of a conversation the two of us had at a Fairbanks coffee shop during AFN last year. We knew we wanted uninterrupted time where we, second-language learners, could go deeper into the language. We knew we most enjoyed studying when surrounded by friends and community supporters. We believed that even though we didn’t know a lot, we knew enough to share. And we wanted to do something.

We spread the word, and were thrilled that a number of community members answered the call. Prior to the start of the program, we called all the participants to ensure they knew what they signed up for. These were going to be intensive days.

In Utqiaġvik, we spent five to eight hours a day together working on the language, and many more studying individually. Seeking to truly connect with our host community, we spoke with and learned from elders, including Kuutuuq Fannie Akpik from the school district, Mark Ahsoak and Paniattaaq  Edna MacLean.

We listened to elders working to translate the Old Testament and went to a church service partially in Iñupiaq. We toured town, including of course pictures by Utqiaġvik’s famous whalebone arch and visited the Iñupiaq Heritage Center and senior center. We made duck soup (qauġak suu), held a community potluck, and performed skits for the community in the language.

All dialects were welcome at Iḷisaqativut. While we largely speak the same language across regions, our local "styles" differ, most notably between North Slope and the Bering Straits region. While we studied from North Slope resources, recognizing we were in Utqiaġvik, if people knew something that was reflective of home, we encouraged them to say it. There is everything beautiful about a linguistic style that provides connection to the land and place you are from and who you and your people are. There is everything beautiful about wanting to learn and preserve the exact ways of your family and community. But we also remembered that our ancestors traveled across the regions for game and for trade, and that they knew and still know a variety of dialects and ways of speaking. Learning more and different ways to speak Iñupiaq does not diminish our ability to learn our own dialects — rather, it enhances it. With Iḷisaqativut, we hope to encourage sharing of the ways of speaking in each of our communities. It will only make our experience of the language richer and stronger. We have built this sharing into the model of Iḷisaqativut — we intend for the program to rotate among regions, meaning next year’s will likely be in Kotzebue or Nome.

Iḷisaqativut is formally unaffiliated, independent, and not official in any meaningful way besides the fact that it took place (and has a website — We as the program designers sought to make it as sustainable as possible into the future. We streamlined expenses and instead leaned heavily upon community support, relationships and partnerships, including the generous offer from Iḷisaġvik College to have the academy hosted at their facility. (Though also a big thanks to Alaska Humanities Forum and Rasmuson Foundation, who provided the cash support we did receive.) We did not want funding to drive the project or be the decision-maker as to if this would continue in the future; too often, we’ve seen immense efforts elapse once a grant is spent. We relied instead on human energy and effort that we expect to be replicable far into the future. Our intention is for the academy to be annual and mobile, rotating through the hubs of Iñupiaq country, which are Utqiaġvik, Kotzebue and Nome.

Something we like to say at Iḷisaqativut is that you don’t have to know everything to teach: you just have to know more than the person you are teaching. By embracing this broader concept and moving from a teaching to a mentorship concept, a generation can grow in learning together, while leaving systemic learning barriers at the door, such as the fear of criticism, ridicule, or getting something wrong. Toddlers and youth are granted years to practice making speech sounds; adult second language learners should be afforded the same privilege.

Taking action with through Iḷisaqativut attests to our growing sense of responsibility for reclaiming our language — such an effort cannot and should not continue to fall on the shoulders of a few. We recognize the trauma which has affected older generations; there are many reasons why the language has faded from daily life, and especially because of this, it is our responsibility to rise up and meet our elders where they are.

Language loss of this kind and magnitude is, to our people, an anomaly within our history. As such, and this can be forgotten, we are all going through this experience for the first time, together. That makes the perspectives and experiences of the second-language Iñupiaq learner unique. As second-language learners, we know what the journey of language acquisition is like. This means we can (and must) offer support to others on the same journey, for it is different than that of a fluent first-language speaker who cannot truly remember how they learned. Better understanding those perspectives and experiences, and providing that support, was one of our inspirations for creating cohort and building cross-regional connections with Iḷisaqativut. No language has ever been revitalized without a core group of fanatics.

In order for our language to truly thrive, it will take efforts on all fronts, from a multitude of people; language learners can and should become part of the language teaching and leadership community. If we are not soon raising new first-language speakers, in a generation we are all going to be learners. We hope not to get there, for our language is beautiful and worth fighting for. As Annauk shared, “When I speak Iñupiaq, I can feel my mother and my grandpa closest to my heart. This spiritual and cultural connection with my mom and my ancestors is what makes speaking Iñupiaq special, identity affirming, and healing.”

One of the words we learned in Utqiaġvik was “qapiġnasi,” meaning “never give up.” Keep going. There are many people who don’t believe they can learn a language, or learn their language; however, people learn languages all the time. And as we also said during those long spring days in Utqiaġvik: “You only have to learn it once.”

Nikaitchuatguuq piraqtut: Those who think they can, will accomplish something.

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