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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Future King Island Speakers

Chapter 1

The purpose of this project is to provide Inupiaq language lessons that will be recorded onto cassette tape and CD. (For the computer and technology savvy people, the lessons can then be downloaded from a CD disk to a computer and then onto an iPod or a MP3 player). This is one way of transmitting our language over time and miles to our young people, and through these lessons, King Island Inupiaq will be strengthened. They were denied learning Inupiaq, simply because the language was not spoken to them as little children. It was because we thought we wanted them to be successful in education without learning our language. These lessons will lead to a deeper knowledge of our rich cultural heritage of stories, legends and lifestyle.

The paper also tells a story of King Island Inupiaq and how the language changed over the years since the mid 1960’s when we were forced to relocate from King Island. It shows how we have maintained our identity through our shared language even though we no longer lived on the island. In working with elders and students, I have come to understand the importance of “baby language” or mother-ease and how observation is inherent in the Inupiaq language. Part of learning how to speak Inupiaq, one has to learn to observe people and nature. That is the period of just watching or “qiniġluu.”

Researching how other indigenous people have revitalized their heritage language is also discussed. The Maori and the Hawaiians specifically have a firm foundation in immersion schools. A group of concerned parents and teachers in Kotzebue, Alaska have done the same thing. They opened their own immersion school. There is another very successful program called the “Yaaveskarniryaraq/Clemente” course will also be described. These programs were successful in retaining a heritage language. With the proposed lessons, it is hoped King Island Inupiaq can be strengthened to move in that direction.

BACKGROUND – A Bit of King Island History

The King Island people have had a traumatic past in that the whole community was forced to move to the mainland. Due to different reasons, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) closed the school in 1959. Two of the major reasons BIA sited were that the island was too isolated and a boulder threatened the school. There was no outside contact (no planes) until the ice came in sometime between November and early December. The “ice field” lasted till the icepack was broken up in the spring, around April or May, so it was difficult to hire teachers for the King Island School. The other reason was that there were possibilities that there would be rockslides from the cliffs above the homes. The rocks were claimed to be hazardous to the inhabitants on the island.

Families were then forced to move to Nome. At first, alcoholism became rampant among them. Some families moved to urban areas such as Anchorage and Fairbanks, while still others married outside the community and lived in the Lower 48. Through all of this, families remained strong in their language and culture in Nome, Alaska. For example, my grandmother, Margaret Suksraq Nerizoc (Nibruq), raised a family in Nome with strong morals and firmness. In her household, English was not allowed to be spoken sensing the children would learn it in school. She kept her family together and fed them by sewing sealskin slippers. After selling them to a gift shop, she’d purchase necessary staples for her household, such as flour, sugar, tea, coffee, canned milk and yeast. Hunters often brought a share of meat to her and her family.

Over time, the children were no longer learning Inupiaq as a first language from their parents and caretakers. My generation is the last generation to be speaking fluent Inupiaq to a certain degree and we were not as insistent for our children to know Inupiaq as my grandmother did for me. Thus, I have studied how we can encourage our young people learn our language, for this I feel we owe them since we did not speak to them in Inupiaq. I studied what has worked with other indigenous people and learned how they had meager beginnings, which had great results. I visited with people who started immersion schools and spoke with the immersion teachers. My fear has always been that if I started an immersion school, I would have to do everything and I am not prepared to do that. There is not only the need for curriculum but for a place to teach including materials and furniture. I know I can handle the curriculum development but not all the other things that go with opening a school. But I do know this is something we have to do ourselves. No school or program will do it for us. This paper will explore ways to help our young people become speakers in the language and to be able to hold a conversation. As each of our elders die they carry with them, their rich cultural language. There is this urgency for us today to document and share with the young people so they can pass the language on to their little ones.

An Inupiaq Education

In order to understand traditional education, I will share my growing up experiences I had with my mother and grandmother since they were the ones who had ingrained in me the Inupiaq language before I ever spoke English. This will give an idea of traditional education within a family and the larger community.

My Inupiaq education began around age five in the home at Nome, Alaska and then outside doing subsistence activities year round. Every sunny day was spent out of doors with my grandmother and the King Island womenfolk. They conversed in the Inupiaq language as they told stories of their families, and reminisced about living on King Island. They all brought lunch to eat together. It would often be a spread of Native foods, which were gathered and prepared in the early spring.

In the fall time as the sea ice formed, they went fishing for tomcods, hour after hour catching as many as possible. Once they returned home, then there would be the job of gutting the tomcods so they can be hung to dry outside.

When summer came, the women gladly spent most of the day hiking and picking edible greens all over the mainland tundra. Both my mother and grandmother taught me to pick the right kinds of plants. Each new week brought more and different leaves to pick. There are numerous types, which were cleaned and stored in seal oil so they can be eaten with fish and meats. Picking greens and berries and eating lunch with these women formed my foundation for the rich Inupiaq language.

No doubt it was same for the young boys during their hunting forays out to the Bering Sea for seals and walruses or for the land mammals on the tundra. The men guided them as they learned to support their families for the much-needed food that sustained the whole community for the long year. They learned to carve and make repairs on whatever needed to be worked on. They made their tools for hunting and carved jewelry for gifts. Many of the men became artists and sculptors in walrus ivory.

In the home, food preparation was very important to store away for the winter. The women butchered seals when the men brought them in. The fresh meat became dinners for the whole family and the rest was dried. Families also went to fish camp to Teller or Cape Woolly when the salmon began running in the main rivers. This was another place where only Inupiaq language was spoken. Just the radio station was heard in English.

Observation is inherent in the Inupiaq language. There is a period to “just watch” – qiniġluu. The learners asked no questions, unless something cannot be seen or observed. When a person feels he/she is ready, they will try whatever it is they are learning to do. An elder or a cultural expert will guide the learner along.

Our language for instruction is mainly project-oriented for creating or making something. Small projects lead to big ones. Starting with models or something little is used as practice. Then a person can move to bigger items. For example, in learning how to sew parkas and mukluks, one learns by sewing beadwork for slipper tops or barrettes. For boys, they would learn to carve first with walrus teeth or on small pieces of scrap ivory. Eventually, the learner moves on to the bigger items. When learning how to sew or carve, a person is always guided to make sure it is done properly. As Leroy Little Bear (2000) relates, “Aboriginal languages are, for the most part, verb-rich languages that are process- or action-oriented. They are generally aimed at describing ‘happenings’ rather than objects.” (p. 78).

In my young adult years, my mother, my older siblings and elder cousins were educating me about rearing my children and how to take care of them in the Inupiaq way. When my mother and stepfather died my older sisters, brothers and cousins always guided me. At times, I sought out their advice as well. I was eventually put into a unique position to translate for children and young people within our community!

This new position of having to translate between the elders and the young people clearly showed me we have to revive our language. This project is about strengthening our language for the coming generations. (Even for the unborn ones).





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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified April 14, 2009