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Iñupiaq in Action – Language Magazine


This past fall, we were writing animal counting stories in my first-grade class. I had one of the best experiences as I was working with my students to develop the stories. The students were going to have a choice to write primarily in English or primarily in Iñupiaq. Since we were writing about animals, I was reviewing the animal names in English and Iñupiaq to create a word wall to support them in their writing. I would flash an animal and the students would shout, “Tuttu!”
“Aarigaa,” I’d say, “What is it in English?”
“Tuttu is caribou. Suna una?” I would say as I flashed the next animal.
“Aiviq!” they would shout out.
“Aarigaa. What is it in English?”
Silence again.

This went on for every animal I showed. Dog, bee, musk ox, bowhead whale. My students would say the animal names in Iñupiaq first, struggling to identify the English names. This is more significant than we might realize as outsiders looking in. My school district and the communities within it are currently undertaking a concentrated effort to revitalize the Iñupiaq language. In 1982, few or no children in Point Hope spoke the language. That is still true today. Yet moments like this with my students warm my heart. They might not be fluent, but they are making progress every day.

And I feel lucky to be a part of this effort. 
Ten years ago, when I first moved to Point Hope, I could not have done a lesson like this with my students. Even five years ago I might have still struggled. Today, I am a better partner in the language revitalization than I was back then. Even from my general education classroom, I find that there are things I can do to support their language learning in English and Iñupiaq.
First, I made the decision early on in my teaching career to value bilingual education.

Oftentimes teachers see the acquisition of two languages as a barrier, when really it should be seen as a strength. I have a master’s degree in bilingual/ESL education. This program confirmed that research shows that children can be bilingual; they can learn two languages at the same time without proficiency in one taking away from proficiency in the other. It also provided me with some of the tools and skills I needed to create a classroom environment that is more inclusive of both languages in my classroom. Visually, it looks like vocabulary words and labels around my classroom. Imiq is above my drinking fountain, katchi is hanging on the wall, and upkuaq is on the door. I have the colors displayed in English and Iñupiaq. My calendar includes the Iñupiaq months and days of the week in the Tikiġaq dialect. My students are surrounded by the language in my classroom, even though I am not fluent in it. Auditorily, it means hearing the language in my classroom as often as possible for me, which brings me to another way I support this language and cultural integration.

Second, I have started learning the language myself. I use the VIVA program, a computer-based program that our students use as part of language instruction with our Iñupiaq language teacher. It is open for staff and students, so I started using it. I have also taken courses through Iḷisaġvik College, Alaska’s only Tribal college, located in Utqiaġvik. Through these courses, I have learned basic Iñupiaq vocabulary and grammar that I can use in my classroom and in different lessons. In the lesson above, I was able to use some of the animal names, numbers, and verbs to help my students write sentences about their animals in either English or Iñupiaq based on their preference. By being a language learner myself, I am demonstrating to my students that I think there is importance and value in their language and culture. This also allows me the opportunity to model what it means to be a learner for my students. In most of the academic content areas, I am the expert in the room. When it comes to the language and culture of my students, this is not the case. I have to humble myself in this area and recognize that there is much that my students can teach me. This often means my students correcting me on how to pronounce the words I try to say.

Third, I engage with the iḷisaurrit, the language teachers in my school. I am obviously not qualified to teach the language. I am not from the community and am far from fluent. It would not be appropriate for me to teach the language or culture, but I can make sure that it is integrated and that there is an authentic representation of concepts in my classroom. With the skills I do have, I can partner meaningfully with the teachers who are qualified in this area. When I am teaching units or lessons that are culturally integrated, I always collaborate with the educators around me who are more familiar with the cultural concepts in the lessons. I verify that the vocabulary I intend to use is double-checked by one of our iḷisaurrit to make sure that I have both the correct words and the correct spellings. I also check to make sure any cultural practices referenced align with local practices, as traditions can vary greatly even between the communities in our district. I am so thankful for the partnerships I have with the iḷisaurrit and that they are always willing to work collaboratively with me to educate our students.

I am incredibly thankful that I can teach in a time when cultural values and language are being embraced within the school system instead of being banned. It is an honor to be a partner in this revitalization effort in the ways that I, and other teachers from outside of the community, can be.

Harlee Harvey is an elementary educator in the village of Point Hope, Alaska. Her work with Alaska Native students has garnered national recognition from The NEA Foundation, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, DC promoting the best in public education.

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