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

Future King Island Speakers

Chapter 2

King Island Inupiaq language is a unique dialect of Inupiaq, which is a dialectal chain, extending along the coast from the Seward Peninsula in the Bering Strait up to North Slope, through Northern Canada and Greenland. The King Island dialect of Inupiaq stems from their harsh but beautiful island isolated out on the Bering Sea, some thirty miles off the mainland and ninety miles west of Nome. Though the grammatical structure is common to the surrounding villages, the people have developed their own expressions, unique to living on an island.

The literature I researched was about programs that exist for children and very young people to reach fluency in an Indigenous or a Native language. As I was reviewing articles and chapters in books on language revitalization, I decided to concentrate on programs that were very successful in revitalizing their heritage languages. I have traveled to New Zealand on a Maori Language Study Tour and later attended the World Indigenous People's Conference on Education (WIPCE) at Hilo, Hawaii and Hamilton, New Zealand. There I attended workshops with a Hawaiian delegation on their Native language education. During the 2002 Rural Academy for Culturally Responsive Schools at Northwest Campus, I attended a class with Cecelia Martz and Lucy Sparck on "Starting a Clemente Course." I have also listened to the staff of Nikaitchuat Ilisaġviat, a very successful Inupiaq immersion school in Kotzebue, Alaska. As I read through the articles, the questions I asked myself were, "How do I help my community regain language proficiency?" "How can we get there?" Fishman's articles helped me to answer these questions by identifying where my community is in terms of language loss.

Therefore, I worked backwards from my first thought of adapting the "Yaaveskarniryaraq/Clemente" course to Inupiaq to adapting "Inupiaq Phrases and Conversations" by Lawrence Kaplan and Lorena Williams which was recorded in the Kotzebue Inupiaq dialect. Since this was going to be a King Island version, I decided to tell the story of King Island Inupiaq through a timeline of the language and used Joshua Fishman's "Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale" to show language loss and Jon Reyhner's suggestions on how to strengthen Native languages.

Who are the Inupiat?

Edna MacLean wrote an article on "Culture and Change for Inupiat and Yupiks of Alaska" which lays out an excellent foundation for this paper in describing who the Inupiat and Yupiks (her own spelling) are. She begins her article with the heritage of the Inuit (Inupiat and Yupiit). She talks about their survival and how they thrived on their rich surroundings even though it is one of the toughest environments known to humans. MacLean illustrates how the Inuit have migrated along the coast of Alaska through the Mackenzie River Delta and all the way to Greenland to move away from other warring communities.

The Inuit lived according to their seasonal activities for hunting and gathering. They learned to create their own homes, clothing and food from their natural environment. MacLean describes how the qargit (qagzrit – King Island dialect) were the center of the whaling communities where stories and legends were told. Men also repaired their hunting equipment and qayat (one-man skin canoes). Younger men learned from the stories of the older men in the qagzrit. During the dark winter months, the people danced and sang to have fun.

In recent times, King Island had three qagzrit, named Aguliit, Nutaat and Qaluilat. Young men would live in them until they were of marrying age. There they learned to make tools, carved ivory, and listened to storytellers.

MacLean goes on to describe the celebration of the whaling communities and the festivities of successful hunts. Traditions such as the "Kivgiqsuat," the Messenger Feast has made a comeback since 1988 for the North Slope Arctic villages. It is usually held at Barrow, Alaska every other year.

MacLean provides a nice description of "Oral Literature Through Legends." With the absence of written stories, she says that Inupiat have two categories of oral literature, one of unipkaat meaning legends and the other of quliaqtuat meaning "those which are told". The unipkaat have characters that can be transformed from animals to humans and vice versa. They usually are the shamans that worked with the supernatural world. Frank Ellanna and Aloysius Pikonganna of King Island told such legends at the community hall when I was growing up.

The quliaqtuat stories are life experiences of Inuit of recent history. For the King Islanders, since the introduction of Catholicism, this word now refers to the Catholic Bible stories.

MacLean shows how the Inupiaq language is indeed the reflection of the environment, in addition she gives a grammatical explanation of one sentence, which can be written in twelve ways without changing its meaning. Nouns can have certain endings that show ownership or the subject of a sentence while the verbs contain endings for transitive or intransitive sentences. The object of a sentence has no marker, which shows it is a direct object.

In the last one hundred years or so the Inuit have experienced drastic changes with technology and travel. MacLean talks about how the Inuit languages have changed along with these changes. She gives an example of the word suppun, a word for gun. The word comes from the root word supi- (suvi- K.I. dialect) meaning, "to gush out or flow out". So the literal action of a gun (compressed air gushing out) identifies what it is in Inupiaq.

Some words though are no longer being used within the King Island community mainly because the terrain of the mainland is different of that on King Island. For example, the word for throwing out water from a porch is siqiraq-. When water is thrown out, it flies with the direction of the wind before it lands on the ground. (On the steep terrain homes are built on stilts high above the ground.) I had never heard of this word until I went to King Island with my two elder sisters who spoke to us only in our language. For those of us raised at Nome speaking Inupiaq, the language "came home".

MacLean ends her article with these words; "The revitalization of Alaska Native languages will occur when Alaska Natives celebrate themselves and their heritage, and insist on being active participants in the education of their children in the home, community and schools" (p. 11) We as the caretakers of our heritage have to be active participants of our Native language.

Guiding Thoughts and Ideas for Native Language Survival

As I was reading about guiding principles for language instruction, I came across two guidelines for language retention. Verna Kirkness was our tour leader the first time my youngest daughter and I went to New Zealand. A zealous woman, who is a Canadian Cree retired educator from Manitoba, introduced us to the Maori daycare centers and schools throughout our two-week visit. She wrote an article on "The Preservation and Use of Our Language: Respecting the Natural Order of Our Creator" in the book called, "Indigenous Languages Across the Community" edited by Barbara Burnaby and Jon Reyhner. The other guide I used was a little booklet titled, "Guidelines for Strengthening Indigenous Languages" by the Assembly of Alaska Natives with the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. This will be discussed after Kirkness' article.

In her article, Kirkness writes about how "individuals, families, communities," and even nations must uphold their respective indigenous languages because "language is an expression of culture" (p.17). She states the importance of maintaining Native languages by communities. To that end, she gives ten directives. For the propose of this paper, I will use numbers one and ten but here is the whole list of Kirkness' directives:

1. We Must Bank Our Languages.
2. We Must Raise the Consciousness Level of Our People.
3. We Must Mobilize Our Resources.
4. We Must Provide Training and Certification
5. We Must Develop a Comprehensive and Appropriate Curriculum.
6. We Must Engage in Meaningful Research.
7. We Must Inform Public Opinion.
8. We Must Eliminate Artificial Boundaries.
9. We Must Press for Aboriginal Language Legislation.
10. We Must Work Together.

The first message she gives is to start recording fluent speakers, most of whom are elders. They can use various media including audiotapes, videotapes and CD ROMs (I would include DVD's made by indigenous speakers). These suggestions may spark an interest for language "revival and maintenance" (p. 17). This is exactly what this paper is about!

Kirkness continues with the level of consciousness by the Aboriginal people must be raised about language loss from oppression. They must learn how the Aboriginal languages were lost due to schooling away from home and losing their Native identity.

Kirkness states, "Of greatest importance is the need to identify ‘best practice pedagogy' based on the traditions of our people" (p. 19). I agree with this statement. We do have our own way for teaching and learning whether it is with adults or young children. Language is often separated from activities in the traditional grammar teaching methods. Kirkness calls this the "old grammar teaching" (p. 19), which does not work with indigenous people. She also talks about the importance of curriculum development to maintain our languages, especially for intergenerational learning, younger generations learning from the older ones. She urges that, "If two successive generations do not speak the languages, it will be lost, we need a planned intervention" (p. 20). This statement clearly describes the situation for the King Island young people and children because they do not speak nor understand the language past the "baby language," sometimes called "motherese". When babies are spoken to in Inupiaq, we make our words shorter. Usually the voice is not raised, as in English in fact the tone of the voice gets softer and lower.

Kirkness concluded her article by saying that aboriginal or indigenous people must work together to follow and honor the "natural order of the Creator" (p. 22). To her, the terms means maintaining and preserving our respective languages. My community is at a stage of making critical decisions about maintaining our language; otherwise, it will be lost.

The second article I worked from is titled "Guidelines for Strengthening Indigenous Languages" which was adopted by Alaska Native Educators. The guideline booklet gives suggestions on how to strengthen Alaska Native languages. It advises Alaska Natives to speak in their traditional languages on a daily basis. It also offers assistance that can be used by local language advisory committees (if there are is one) to make future recommendations about their Native language in their community.

The key guidelines that serve well for this paper are:

• Guidelines for Native Elders
• Guidelines for Parents
• Guidelines for Aspiring Language Learners

These particular guidelines can be interwoven for intergenerational language learning and speaking. For the Native elders, they are encouraged to speak to their younger people daily, use traditional ways of teaching, and agree to be mentors for language learners. The parents are encouraged to use traditional kinship for family and to believe in their children to learn a language. The aspiring language learners are in turn encouraged to seek out mentors, to spend time with elders, to learn the deeper meanings of words. An example of this intergenerational language learning is how a young woman learns to make an uġiłiqaaq or a parka cover (calico) from an elder woman and/or her mother. They are discussed further under the section, "Strengthening King Island Inupiaq Through Intergenerational Learning and Literacy."

A definition of elders is included in the preface that I really like:

"The identification of ‘Elders' as culture-bearers is not simply a matter of chronological age, but a function of the respect accorded to individuals in each community who exemplify the values and lifeways of the local culture and who possess the wisdom and willingness to pass their knowledge on to future generations. Respected Elders serve as the philosophers, professors and visionaries of a cultural community." (Assembly of Alaska Native Educators, 2001, p.3).

Within the King Island community we have such elders. They love to share their cultural knowledge and are always willing to participate in different community activities.

Other guidelines included in the booklet are for:

• Native Communities and Organizations
• Educators
• Schools
• Education Agencies
• Linguists
• Media Producers
• General Recommendations.

Under each area, various actions are suggested to help strengthen indigenous languages in Alaska. Both of these two readings make for a good underlying foundation for language retention and maintenance.

Successful Programs – Clemente Course

I originally thought I would adapt the Yaaveskarniryaraq/Clemente project that derived from the Clemente course by Earl Shorris. The "Yaves" model involves elders as professors to the young people learning their cultural roots through the humanities. It serves as redirecting their cultural foundation in their Native identity.

In his book, Riches for the Poor, Shorris talks about overcoming poverty in America. He believes the poor needs to learn the humanities, i.e. museums, opera, and the theatre. He developed a course to work with the poor in the area of history and learning about plays. His first class, called the Clemente course worked well for people who needed help. The last chapter before the conclusion is called "Other countries, Other Cultures" This chapter describes how Shorris brought his work to the Mayan people in Yucatan, Mexico. He had never thought of the Clemente Course outside of English. However he and his comrade met and talked about ways to teach Mayan art, history, literature and philosophy. The course was taught in the Mayan language to reach the high culture of the Mayan people.

In the year 2000 Shorris traveled to Alaska during the second year of the Mayan Clemente course. He went to Bethel, Alaska to talk about "poverty and education at the state Democratic Convention" (p. 240). While there, he met with a number of individuals to help make the Clemente course begin in "bush Alaska." Shorris was introduced to key people to make it happen. They flew to Chevak where the course began with four elders and adult students. The class was held for a year. The students were enriched with Yup'ik language and philosophy.

The Yup'ik participants named the Clemente course to "Yaaveskarniryaraq" which means, the study of Y/Cupik way of life. They provided a loose translation of "Yaaveskarniryaraq":

"We, the C/Yupiit are raised according to the original directions of our forefathers. We love one another, our belief is strong, and we continue to better our lives. We know that our way of life has been grounded in traditional values and customs since time immemorial. Those who follow the teachings of respect understand that everything has a spirit with rewards of gratitude. Those who follow the teachings of our ancestors are intelligent, self-assured and prosperous" (p. 247).

Shorris ends the chapter talking about Mexico. His point was made that through the humanities, where people in poverty and those that are marginalized can raise themselves out of it by studying who they are and where they come from. It is through reflective thinking that a high culture is achieved.

Of course we would want to reach this level of "high culture" within our community. We would need to assist the adults to speaking fluently in order to learn fully from elders. When I worked at the Kawerak Eskimo Heritage Program as a translator and transcriber, I often came across words I did not understand. So I had to ask an elder what the words meant. That way, I can properly translate the words into English. In a sense, the elders were my "professors."

About "Yaaveskarniryaraq

In May of 2002, there was a "Rural Academy for Culturally Responsive Schools" held at Northwest Campus in Nome. Cecelia Martz and Lucy Sparck facilitated a session on "Yaaveskarniryaraq: The Study of Yuuyaraq, Applied to Inupiaq." During the session, they described the college course in which they had assisted their elders to be professors. The students were young and middle-aged adults. A participant of the original class was present to share her experience as a student of this class.

Martz and Sparck began by telling us that in the Yup'ik history with formal education, young people were sent away for high school. When this happened, they had lost their Yup'ik foundation. They were severed from the teachings of the elders and the community. In the Yup'ik society, young people learned their roles, as they became young adults.

The facilitators suggested that to begin a class, it must be with a core group of people to establish the initial meetings. They also said to identify elders who would be willing to help as mentors and guides.

Martz and Sparck stressed that once the group gets going, they have to stay with the schedule they agreed upon. They said the group must define a vision and purpose for the class in order for it to be successful. They continued with "designing the course that can teach (traditional) knowledge though traditional educational methods" (p. 2) practiced in the community. I believe this is the most important part for success.

They suggested identifying organizations from both "inside and outside" the community to gain partnerships for funding the course. This would include organizations outside the region.

This course is based on the "guiding philosophy of Cup'ik life" (p. 3). It is an incorporated study of literature, history, art, science, literacy, and spirituality. Since this class was taught totally in C/Yup'ik language, the students were able to rediscover their own world through their own eyes.

This is a yearlong course with elders as the professors in the C/Yup'ik language for young adults. Once our partial Inupiaq speakers become fluent or comfortable in the language then this would be a goal for our parents with very young children. They would eventually be the generation to raise their children with Inupiaq as a first language. I really like the way the whole course is based on Y/Cup'ik way of life and discovering that "high culture" through the language.

Successful Indigenous Immersion Programs

As I was researching for information on Native language revitalization, I kept reading articles about the Maori and Hawaiian immersion daycare centers and preschools. The Maori forged on opening daycare centers where the little children hear only the Maori language all day! This reminded me of one of our late elders, Margaret Seeganna. She was a bilingual teacher among younger teachers back in the late seventies. She used to tell us, "For children to learn Inupiaq, they have to listen to at least two speakers. That way they will figure out what is being said." I have never thought much of her statement since I was trained as a classroom teacher in a Western sense. I had learned that I am the teacher and the language will come from me. Now I realize what she meant. We have to converse and communicate in Inupiaq in order for children to hear and learn the language. From the core vocabulary of the "Ugiuvaŋmiuraaqtuaksrat Lessons," we can move forward in becoming fluent in an immersion setting.

Local Alaska Native immersion schools exist throughout the state. The one I concentrated on was the "Nikaitchuat Ilisaġviat" at Kotzebue, Alaska. All the staff of Nikaitchuat Ilisaġviat School was at the "Rural Academy for Culturally Responsive Schools" in 2002. They shared how they opened their school.

The following descriptions are of these successful indigenous immersion schools from Kotzebue, Alaska, Hawaii and New Zealand.

Te Kohanga Reo

As described by Jeanette King, Te Kohanga Reo was quite a language movement when it began in the early 1980's. The terms, Te Kohanga Reo means "Language Nest" where older women began taking care of preschool children age birth to five years in order to speak only in the Maori language. This became the foundation for the language movement. The older fluent speakers wanted to pass on their language proficiency to the young children since they learn language most easily. In 1982 the first Kohanga Reo was opened in Wellington. By 1996, the largest number of Kohanga Reos rose to 767 centers, however the numbers dropped to 646 in 1998 (King, p. 122).

The parents of these children wanted schools opened for them so they can continue their Maori education. So in a few years, Kura Kaupapa Maori schools were opened. They were private schools at first but were later funded by the government.

Today, Maori parents have choices to what type of schools they want to send their children to. At our second visit, (my youngest daughter and I) the family we stayed at have two sons, ages six and ten. They attended a bilingual school where they were taught in Maori in the morning and in English in the afternoon. They can understand their parents when they are spoken to in Maori and respond back in the language. They also spoke English with us, quite fluently.

On our two visits to New Zealand, it was most impressive to watch little children welcome us into their Marae (tribal community meeting place) along with their caretakers. We toured a number of daycares and preschools, which are connected to a Marae. We also toured Kura Kaupapa Maori schools, secondary schools and tribal teacher colleges. At each institution we visited we were welcomed by the Maori according to their custom of singing in guests and long speeches. My eight-year-old daughter and I did our part by singing and dancing back to them in our King Island Inupiaq way. It was most moving as some two hundred students in a school gymnasium sat listening attentively and quietly as we sang back to them. Another memorable moment was when we met a twenty-five year old teacher, a young woman who began learning Maori at a Kohanga Reo as a small child!

Indeed the Maori have made their language alive again by simply speaking to their small children and making sure they would be educated in that language. Their philosophy of schooling was carried out in order to make a language shift from predominately English speakers to Maori speakers in matter of about twenty years. Their small and meager beginnings is a lesson for us to follow since the state of King Island Inupiaq is now the same as it was for the Maori in 1982. The language situation is the same in that only the adults and elders speak Inupiaq fluently but not the young people and children.

The population of speakers though is one big difference. While in New Zealand, "the Maori have a common language regardless of where in New Zealand they reside" (Stiles, 1997, p. 151). For the Inupiaq language however, it is a dialectal chain under four flags; Chukotka region in Russian Far East, Alaska, USA, Northern Canada, and Greenland. Each village speaks a dialect of it's own. King Island, in the Bering Strait region is usually listed under Bering Strait Inupiaq or the Seward Peninsula.

Hawaiian Language Movement

In "The Movement to Revitalize Hawaiian Language and Culture" from Hinton and Hale's The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, Sam Warner begins this chapter on the "socio-historical background" of the Hawaiian society, and their language history. He gives a grim picture of the Hawaiian Native people in education with loss of language and culture. However, in the last 20 years the Hawaiians have gone through a revitalization of their language and culture through immersion schools and "language nests" for little ones. He also talks about issues and problems that came up with these programs.

As I read the article, it reminds me of the same experiences the Alaska Natives have had with Western contact, for example, being punished in schools for speaking their Native language, and dealing with the early missionaries which lead to loss of traditional religion. The Native population is underrepresented in education as teachers.

Warner describes the roots of revival in Hawaiian language and culture by late 1960's with the young people in song and dance. This led to courses at the university level along with some important changes at the state legislation level. Fashioned after Kohanga Reos, "Punana Leos" (language nests) were opened in Hawaii. They are total immersion preschools in the Hawaiian language. There were early difficulties with the state's Department of Social Services and Housing (DSSH). One of the arguments was that the immersion method of teaching was not a true method as teaching in the grammar-translation method!

The Hawaiian language immersion schools for elementary, intermediate, and high school began when the Native educators and parents realized that their language would not survive another generation. Also, the children from the Punana Leo preschools needed to continue learning in their language. Testimonies shared by the Hawaiian Natives said that their language and culture were in critical need for maintenance in order for the language to survive.

Warner lists various issues that the immersion schools faced not only for support but also the politics of who would control the schools. In the end though, the accomplishment of the Hawaiian immersion schools are to be commended. The main thing is working through the Hawaiian state government to obtain their goals, which is to revive and keep their Hawaiian language alive.

A King Island Youth Group was started in the late 1990's and like the young Hawaiians, the teens wanted to learn to do traditional dances. So three drummers began drumming and singing for them. Soon after that, the elder women and parents joined in. All of us began learning from the elders! We practice three times a week. The teens learned the correct motions from the memories of the elders. When the young people did not understand what they needed to do, My niece, Marilyn Koezuna-Irelan I had to translate for the two groups. We eventually changed the name of King Island Youth Group to "Ugiuvangmiut King Island Dancers" to better reflect all of our age groups. With this in place, we can begin language lessons reinforced by the recorded lessons. From there, we actually need to speak only in Inupiaq during our dance practices. We usually practice once or twice a week in early fall and throughout the winter until spring hunt begins in April.

An Inupiaq Immersion School

In the newsletter, Sharing Our Pathways, (Volume 7, Issue 1, Jan/Feb, 2002) Diane Schaffer describes the Inupiaq immersion school at Kotzebue, Alaska, named "Nikaitchuat Ilisaġviat." The team that put the school together had meager beginnings but a lot of determination! They and other concerned parents began their meetings about education issues in mid 1990's. As time went on they formed separate committees for building, curriculum and materials, furniture, finance and enrollment. Each committee was responsible for obtaining the items that were needed for the school. They opened their doors in 1998 with help from various organizations such as the Northwest Arctic Native Association (NANA), Manilaq, a nonprofit arm of NANA, and the Kotzebue Traditional Council through the Indian Reorganization Act.

In their Inupiaq language, Nikaitchuat means "anything is possible or never give up" and Ilisaġviat means "a place to learn." It is a school for young children. Their lessons/units are written from their perspectives. The teachers bring their students outside as much as possible. I believe that is the most important part is teaching the children in their language with content from their land and other local resources. That way the students are grounded in their Inupiaq foundation and can readily learn of the outside world with ease. For the founders of the school, it was important for the children learn the Inupiaq language.

Another very important point in Schaeffer's article is parent involvement. The parents have to be committed to have their students learn Inupiaq language the Inupiaq way. The parents are also asked to volunteer at least four hours per month. Extended family members of the students end up volunteering as well. The volunteers read to children, serve snacks and help clean, just to name a few volunteer activities.

At the time of Schaffer's writing of the article, they had nineteen students ranging from pre-school to second grade. They had a staff of one director, a materials developer, and four teachers. Schaffer was working with the "Parent Governance Committee" to expand their school to Fifth grade with the older students. This is very good model to follow when we are ready for such an immersion school. I really liked the idea of different committees to acquire what was needed to open a school.

In speaking with Diana Iguguq Schaffer about school's status today, she said, they have twenty preschool – first grade students and they are open from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

For all of the immersion schools, they are successful in reviving their Native languages. At New Zealand, little children were speaking in Maori with each other and with their caretakers. School children wrote poems in Maori after they welcomed us into their school. While we were visiting the daycares and schools, we were asked not to speak in English.

The Native Hawaiians (concerned parents and teachers) have done extensive work with the state government to open their Punana Leos preschools and then later their Hawaiian immersion schools. Helen B. Slaughter wrote about a case study on "Kula Kaiapuni Hawai'i", an effort for Hawaiian Native language revitalization. She describes how parents and some Hawaiian-language educators gained support from the legislature in Hawaii to open their own schools. In speaking with the Inupiaq language teachers from Nikaitchuat, the parents that have made a difference for their success. While speaking to us during the "Rural Academy for Culturally Responsive Schools, the head teacher Polly Schaffer of Nikaitchuat mentioned, "It seemed really easy with concerned parents working right alongside us".

In the immersion schools though, teaching materials are limited. Textbooks and other teaching materials are not available in the Native language as there are in the mainstream society. They have to develop their own teaching materials. In talking about successful indigenous programs, Stiles said, "The need for written teaching materials is a common problem for these programs. Textbook companies do not make, as a rule, textbooks for a few thousand children in an obscure language" (1997, p.154). However, if there is funding available, using today's technology they can readily develop their own.

I have certainly learned from these other indigenous communities for language revival. Fishman did an extensive writing on the Maori in his book, "Reversing Language Shift" since they have established reversing their language loss to revitalization. It all of the cases, it is parent involvement that makes a difference. Just as MacLean mentions that we as parents need to be involved in the education of our children.

King Island Inupiaq today is in much the same situation as Maori was in 1982 and later with the Hawaiians in 1984. The language history has much in common and the steps they took, the staff at Nikaitchuat Ilisaġviat school has already taken is the step my community needs to begin taking. The audiotapes or CD's are needed so young people can listen to them to begin learning the words so they can say them to their children.

Disruption Scale and Intervention of Indigenous Languages

It became clear to me that I needed to illustrate the situation of King Island Inupiaq language. One can notice that there is a gap between the last generations of fluent speakers to that of the youngest children within the community. This gap began happening with the children of those born in the 1960's to 1970's. King Island people were forced to move to Nome in the mid sixties. The Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the school and so the families with school age children had to stay in Nome to have their children educated. This brought many social ills for the families, including the loss of language to English. This final portion of the literature review discusses that loss and how interventions can be used to revitalize our Inupiaq language.

To show a rough estimate count of King Island Inupiaq speakers, I drew a table. I was fortunate to obtain a confidential list of the King Island Native Community membership. I began this search by first interviewing the last generation of King Island children that were raised on King Island. They are in their middle fifties to sixties now. My older niece, Marie Omiak and her husband Sigwein helped with this initial count of her generation, of which were thirty-seven in her age group. With an estimate number in mind, it clearly shows which generations will benefit from the lessons to strengthen our language for revitalization. The age groups begin with the oldest living King Islanders and I broke the ages into ten-year increments except for the age group 0-15 years. The fluency descriptions are explained on the bottom of the table.

The table shows the situation of King Island language and how we can describe it using Fishman's Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale.

B. Alvanna-Stimpfle

Table 1 King Island Inupiaq Speaker Population. Unofficial count by ten-year generations.

Estimate numbers taken from the King Island Native Community office. Some older King Islanders were added which were not on the list. They may be enrolled at another Native traditional organization.

Ages in ten-year generations – Speakers/Total Population






Slightly Fluent





Limited Words







Common Expressions












  • There are total of 530 King Island people (full blooded – 1/4) counted. 98 people are fluent speakers. The youngest speaker is about 49 years old.
  • 31 people are "slightly fluent" which means they can understand the language but usually answer in English.
  • 48 people use "limited words" which means they mix Inupiaq and English when they speak and can respond in some of the everyday language. (i.e. "imiq- "to drink" + ing – English ending = "Imiq-ing" – to drink alcohol.
  • 16 people only know "common expressions": i.e. alapaa "brrr"; azitnaa "oh no!"
  • 337 do not speak the Inupiaq language. 154 young people and children do not understand at all.

King Island Language Timeline

The following table is a timeline showing important events for King Islanders and their language, which gives a history of our language, how long it has survived due to its isolation. It gives a picture how much longer King Island Inupiaq survived even while the people moved away from the island. The timeline leads into Fishman's questions on loss of indigenous language.

B. Alvanna-Stimpfle

Table 2 Timeline of King Island Inupiaq, much of the information from Renner, "Pioneer Missionary to the Bering Strait Eskimos: Bellarmine Lafortune, S.J.
Year Activitiy

Only Inupiaq spoken by all persons with a few Russian loan words. Trade with the Chukchi and Yupik people. Functional items have names from the Russian language. i.e.

Inupiaq Russian English
saasrkaq chashka cup
kiluusaq kluch key
mukaaq muka flour
1898 Gold rush in Nome attracts many Native groups from the region in their large umiaks or skinboats." (pg 14) and many English speakers
1903 Fr. Lafortune arrives in Nome and begins evangelizing the Natives while learning the Inupiaq language.
1905- King Island and Diomede Native are still "pagans".
1906 Fr. Lafortune is now a fluent speaker of Inupiaq. The Natives name him "Ataataziuraq" literally meaning "the little Father", but used as an endearment name, shown with respect.
1907 There are 60 Catholics about 50% of the population on King Island but no school yet. (According to Lafortune in a letter to Bishop Crimont).
1916 June, Lafortune's first visit to King Island for eight days. All the people on the island are baptized Catholic.
1929 Lafortune establishes mission on King Island, and a government school is built. The first teacher is a Native teacher from Wales, Arthur Nagozruk, Sr. a Protestant. (Renner, p. 76) "Mr. Nagozruk spoke in English to the students at school but when the students didn't understand him, he would switch to Inupiaq." (Phone dialogue with elder Helen Pushruk). Inupiaq language is spoken outside of the school and church probably because both the Jesuit priest and the schoolteacher spoke Inupiaq!
1947 1947 Lafortune dies, a gradual movement to Nome begins with each year. Population on King Island fluctuates in these years:
1950 – 141 people
1953 – 130
1955 – 99
1956 – 76
1957 – 101
1958 – 115
1959 – 62
1956-57 School closes for a year.
1958-59 School closes permanently due to low number of students, the difficulty of finding teachers, the extreme isolation and hardship, plus a rockslide hazard.
1960 62 people return to the island. By April Fr. George E. Carroll closes the mission. On the east end of Nome, where the King Islanders settle, Inupiaq language is still the primary language. Children enter school at Nome Public Schools speaking only in Inupiaq. English is learned without special programs to help them.
1970-80 Children learn their parents' English (village English). Less Inupiaq is spoken, but most can understand it.
1971 Bilingual and Bicultural Education Law is adopted in Alaska. Nome Public Schools implements their program to teach 3 dialects of Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Yupik.
1980-90 Young people speak more English than Inupiaq and most of who can't understand Inupiaq.
1990-00 No children speak Inupiaq. Young parents know only limited expressions.
2000- present Young people can do traditional dancing, sew parkas, go hunting, picks berries and greens, butcher seals, prepare dried meat and fish for winter consumption but they cannot understand nor speak Inupiaq fluently.

By the 1980's young teens were not speaking Inupiaq fluently. Many could understand when spoken to but they responded in English. The trend by the 90's was that children were not raised speaking Inupiaq.

Fishman's Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale

The following table is a summary of Fishman's Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) from his book, "Reversing Language Shift". He uses a metaphor of a Richter scale for earthquakes to show the disruption scale of language loss within a community. Like a Richter scale that shows a higher number, it indicates a dangerous situation for damage; the higher the number in GIDS, the more language loss there is.

Stage 8 – Only a few elders speak the language. There needs to be a thorough relearning of the language.
Stage 7 – Adults beyond childbearing years can speak the language. The older adults need to reconnect with younger generations to pass on the language.
Stage 6 – Intergenerational informal speakers, young people waiting to create their families.
Stage 5 – People in the community speak the language and literacy is alive.
Stage 4 – Language is in the schools. Immersion education is present.
Stage 3 – Language is used in the work area, and community (lower work sphere).
Stage 2 – Lower governmental services and mass media but not in higher sphere.
Stage 1 – Language is spoken in some higher level educational occupations, government and the media.

Within the King Island community, the disruption scale is between stages 7 and 6. We have about 98 fluent speakers and 31 people are "partial speakers". They can understand the language majority of the time but cannot answer back in fluent Inupiaq. This brings us to Jon Reyhner's introduction for a booklet, called the "Revitalizing Indigenous Languages" from the Fifth Annual Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium at Louisville, Kentucky in 1998. He summarizes Fishman's eight stages of language loss. Reyhner then gives suggestions for activities from Leanne Hinton's work on language revitalization.

Reyhner gives these suggestions for interventions to strengthen the threatened language:

Stage 8 – Implement Hinton's (1994) "Language Apprentice" Model where fluent elders are teamed one-on-one with young adults who want to learn the language. Telephones can be use where elders are dispersed.
Stage 7 – Establish "Language Nests" after the Maori and Hawaiian models where fluent older adults provide pre-school childcare where they are immersed in their indigenous language.
Stage 6 – Develop places in community where language is encouraged, protected, and used exclusively. Encourage more young parents to speak the indigenous language in home with and around their young children.
Stage 5 – Offer literacy in Native language. Promote voluntary programs in the schools and other community institutions to improve the prestige and use of the language. Use language in local government functions, especially social services. Give recognition to special local efforts through awards, etc.
Stage 4 – Improve instructional methods using Total Physical Response (TPR) and other immersion teaching practices. Teach reading and writing for higher-level language skills. Develop a two-way bilingual program where non-speaking elementary students learn the indigenous language and speakers learn a national or inter-national language. Textbooks would need to be developed to teach the indigenous language.
Stage 3 – Use the language at work throughout the community. Develop vocabulary so that workers in an office could speak in their indigenous language.
Stage 2 – Promote use of written form of language for government and business dealings/records. Promote indigenous language newsletters, newspapers, radio stations, and television
Stage 1 – Tribal colleges can teach their subjects in the language. Create and develop indigenous language oral and written literature using dramatic presentations and publications. Give awards for indigenous language publications and other notable efforts to promote indigenous languages.

For my community, the activities for stages 7 and 8 are directly related for our language status. The proposed recorded language would be an impetus for young parents to begin to speak their Native language to their little ones. Young people would also benefit from the recordings by listening to fluent speakers which would prepare them to try speaking in the language with fluent speakers.

We still hold traditional dances and try to practice regularly except during spring and summer. An example of Stage 6 activity is at the dance practices where people can speak In Inupiaq. The language can be used exclusively where the young people can hear it the language in its natural setting.

I believe once the younger people have caught on using the language, they will want to open a "language nest" type day-care or pre-school for very young children. This is where the Maori in New Zealand and later the Hawaiians have been very successful in revitalizing their languages since 1982. The young children were totally immersed in the language while their parents were at work.

What is Lost Without a Traditional Language?

Joshua Fishman asks very good questions in this article on "What Do You Lose When You Lose Your Language?" in Cantoni's (Ed.), Stabilizing Indigenous Languages. His answers to the questions make absolute sense in my mind about my community and our heritage language. Our language is at the brink of being forgotten because we as parents did not speak to our children as they were growing up. We spoke in "baby language" and common expressions to them and that is what they know. We have not let them graduate into the adult language as young people.

Fishman answers his question "What do you lose when you lose your language?" in the perspective of cultural loss as opposed to the view of an individual. He speaks of the relationship between language and culture. "A language long associated with the culture is best able to express most easily, most exactly, most richly, with more appropriate overtones, the concerns, artifacts, values, and interests of that culture" (p. 2). We lose a whole way of living, a way of thought, and cultural values.

My grandmother was very strict about speaking only Inupiaq in our home as I was growing up. In her Inupiaq mind, she knew I would eventually learn English in school. She did not want to lose her language with her grandchildren even while living in Nome. What Fishman says about culture and language explains my grandmother's thinking.

Fishman describes a sense of belonging within a community through language. "All the endearments, all the nurturing, that is kinship is tied into a living organism of a community by people who know each other, and they know they belong together." Fishman continues saying this is what the old sociologist called, "gemeinschaft." People are tied together through language and there is a sense of belonging.

I have often felt this way while being surrounded by my older relatives and everyone speaking in Inupiaq. An example of this is when we eat meals together with traditional foods. Starting from the main course of meat, greens (edible plants) and berries to tea and bread in the end. Another example is when I transported elder women originally from the village of Wales during the Kawerak Regional Conference. (Kawerak Inc. is the nonprofit arm of Bering Strait Native Corporation). I was driving them to the homes where they were staying. During the ride, I listened to their beautiful dialect as they were speaking. Compared to King Island Inupiaq, theirs has slight singsong tone while my dialect is monotone and direct.

It is rare now to find myself in this environment at public places. It is so sad listening to young adults speaking only in English with some Native language thrown in here and there. That sense of belonging through language as described by Fishman seems to be lost already.

This takes us to the sense of responsibility, to do something for the language. People feel like they have to do something about retaining the language. (That is where I am today!) I liked the way Loddie Jones of Bethel Alaska, a Yup'ik immersion teacher has told me once, "Our Native language is a gift we have received from our parents and grandparents and we have to do something about passing it along to the young ones."

Fishman talks about reasons for failure in language revitalization or stabilizing weak languages. One of them is that people are in denial of losing their language, thinking young people will pick it up, as they become adults. But he says it is too late by then since the adults have gone beyond childbearing years. In some communities, I have listened to the older generation speak to each other in their language, they told jokes and stories and laughed together. When they spoke to their children, they spoke to them in English! Most times the parent spoke to them in their broken English, so that is what the children learned.

Another reason Fishman states is that people don't know what to do because they do not understand "mother tongue acquisition, use and transmission" (p. 5). I've had conversations with mothers who were unsure about speaking their language to their children, so they just end up speaking in English to them. They shared it is hard, what to do since there is so much English everywhere in the communities now.

There is hope for language survival. Fishman recommends beginning small, as in starting where the mother tongue begins. Start with the "informal and spontaneous" language since most language is not institutionalized. A language space needs to be created for speaking and sharing conversations. This is the hardest part for communities since people are spread everywhere. For instance, King Island people are located in Nome, Anchorage, and Fairbanks and even in the Lower 48 states.

I would say there are "pockets of speakers" though, where dance groups were formed wherever they could form one and they would get together for special meals. The people here in Nome still do activities together; the men hunt in crews out on the Bering Sea and the women drive out to the country to pick greens and berries. What is important is for the slightly fluent speaker is to be immersed in the language so they can begin understanding what is being said, just as Margaret Seeganna once told us.

This then would lead to "family building, culture building, and intimacy building" (Fishman, 1994, p. 8), which are "prerequisites for language fostering because no school is going to do them" (Fishman, 1994, p.8). But schools have resources in which, they can help by providing a space to hold classes and enrolling students through Community Schools.

Fishman ends his article with a question, "What are you going to do with the mother tongue before school, in school, out of school, and after school?" (p. 8). I can only say that I can help what happens after school in the near future, which hopefully will spiral to what happens before, in, and out of school! King Island Traditional Council has asked me at a meeting if I would be willing to help teach Inupiaq immersion if they looked for funds!

Verna Kirkness talked about if two generations do not speak the heritage language then it will be forgotten. All of what Fishman says about what would be lost, if the heritage language is lost, then we would lose a whole way of living. The King Island Inupiaq language has reached that point; two generations with some families have reached this point. With the elders we have left, we can revive our language by following the steps of other indigenous communities. I am willing to share what I learned from this project with the King Island Native Community so we can begin making language plans right along with the Elders Committee.


My community is excited for an immersion school. It would bring us back to our home language even though King Islanders have not lived on King Island since the middle sixties. Various parents have expressed to me, we need to do something about learning our Native language. When I was a Traditional Council member, I encouraged the group that we need to relearn how our people used to prepare traditional foods. The Tribal Coordinator and the Indian Child Welfare Act Coordinator (ICWA) began arranging outings for the youth last summer. They hired an elder to show how to butcher seals for making sealoil and how to cut up meat for drying. When it was time to go picking, they went and picked greens and berries. By fall time, they stored away enough food for special potlucks to share throughout the winter! The heritage language can be built right in with these traditional activities now.

MacLean and Fishman talk about how the language we speak is our identity and I do believe in that. It is unique to be around my cousins and relatives who speak our language. That is what we need to develop with our young adults and children, their Inupiaq language identity. The Native language can be built right in the cultural and subsistence activities. Of course we would compete for the young people's time during the school year since many of them are very involved with school sports! During the summer they take on jobs to earn extra money. So, we would have to organize around their schedules to make it work. There are now written documents of successful programs that we can emulate and make it work for ourselves. Something as simple as a recording and a phrasebook can help strengthen our heritage language and move towards language revitalization.





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Last modified April 14, 2009