Elders encourage youth to learn Inupiaq
Notes from the chorus of "Aarigaa" rang from the back room. In the main auditorium, a few people lifted up their heads when they heard the sound.
Dozens of Inupiaq speakers had gathered in one of the Elders and Youth meeting rooms to practice their language on the first day of the conference.
In line with the event's theme this year, language, culture, and tradition were a central focus during the week. Language circles for Sugpiaq, Inupiaq, and Yup'ik, among others, were held for speakers and learners to come together and talk.
"What you learned here, take it home, keep it in your heart and encourage each other because we need to get our language back," said one participant named Louisa.
As part of the Inupiaq language circle, the group split into smaller bunches to practice words for common phrases and emotions. Elders and youth were paired together and given a picture of a face that was happy, sad, or angry, for example. They had to act out the emotion while the rest of the group guessed the word in Inupiaq.
After a while, the group divided once again and a few of the elders led younger people in a game of Simon Says, or Follow the Leader. The elder would say a word and the youth had to do what they were told. One of the elders, James Nageak, had his group turning in circles and jumping up and down by the end.
"What I understand is we have a lot of bilingual education in our schools," he said. "The kids know a lot of vocabulary."
Before the language circle dispersed, the organizers asked elders if they had any words of advice or encouragement for young people trying to learn Inupiaq.
Nageak took the lead, saying youth should do the same and take their learning to the next level.
"You learn all of these words in school but you can't put them together sometimes," he said. "I want to encourage young people to learn something about grammar, how to put the Inupiaq words together."
He also noted subtle changes that have happened over the years, like the shift in meaning for "aapa" and "aaka" from "father" and "mother" to "grandfather" and "grandmother," and said it's useful to understand the history of the language, too.
After he finished speaking, Louisa stood up.
"What I really want to do is for all of us, even you young ones, when you go back, encourage each other," she said. "I've seen too many people give up because people are making fun of them. Encourage each other. If they don't pronounce it right, don't make fun of them. A lot of the young people, they tell me, 'They always make fun of me.' Don't let that stop you from learning your mother language. Go back."
Throughout the conference, there have been discussions about how to move forward from a legacy of cultural oppression. Indigenous languages have been casualties of Alaska's troubled history, as noted by several speakers.
"We've been so discouraged and we learned it very well, us elders, we've been so oppressed so long that our families learned that behavior. Our way is to help each other," she said.
Other elders, like one woman named Virginia, gave advice about how to learn the language from more than just a book.
"Rule No. 1 is, I grew up around Inupiaq speaking people. That's how I picked it up. I didn't go to a classroom. So, go and help an elder with a chore or something and ask them to speak Inupiaq with you. Try to learn one word every time. That's how we picked up our language," she said. "I encourage you to not be uncomfortable because we're supposed to honor our elders anyway. Go to your elders. They will accept you."
She suggested chopping firewood or doing dishes for an elder in the afternoon and asking them to point to objects and describe them.
"We encourage our parents to start saying one word, but you have to also use your gestures," she said. "If you're uncomfortable going to elders you go to each other and you share. You work together. My daughter doesn't speak our language really good but I put it on a tape recorder. She already has a basic knowledge. You listen to your tape, then you start instructing your child even if you live in Anchorage. My two-year-old [grandchild] can now speak."
The next speaker agreed with her. He gave his advice in Inupiaq and Nageak translated for him:
"When you start talking to babies when they are born or if you adopt a baby and you talk in Inupiaq at home all the time and the child is growing up hearing the language, hearing what they are saying, when the baby is a child [she can understand it]. If you have little brothers and sisters, encourage your parents to speak, one word at a time."
At the very end of the session, one younger participant asked to speak. He started off in Inupiaq, sometimes pausing to remember a word, sometimes speaking slowly, but never hesitating.
"Once you are raised in an elder's home, you hear it all the time. The little ones should hear it and once they hear it, it's embedded in their mind. I grew up with my aana and she spoke a lot and I'm very thankful," he said. "Thank you for instilling it in me and I hope that I can be of some encouragement to the younger folks to try, to try to speak all the time and think all the time. I just want to encourage every one of you guys to visit your grandparents. They need you and you need them."
He said that he is still learning. Earlier in the day, he'd been having lunch with his mother and he pulled out his dictionary to look up a word.
"I carry it with me all the time. I have this passion for my language and I want to encourage you to learn, even if it's singing a hymn in Inupiaq. That's how I learned. It comes from the heart," he said. "I'm not just speaking so I can get attention, it's something I really feel strongly about. People say it's a dying language and we don't want to hear that. That's not what we want to hear."
He then asked everyone in the room to lend their voices to singing "Aarigaa" in celebration of the language and its people.
After one refrain, he chimed in:
"Louder, so everyone can hear you, from all over the state," he said.