Nome-based non-profit hopes to revitalize Inupiaq with ‘language nest’

Marjorie Tahbone, the new vice chair of Inuusiq, Inc., teaching an Inupiaq class at the Nome high school in 2014. Inuusiq, a new non-profit, is creating a language nest in Shishmaref to revitalize Inupiaq culture and language. (File photo by KNOM)

Coming to the region at the start of the new year is a “nest” project focused on Inupiaq language revitalization. A Nome-based non-profit organization called Inuusiq Inc., which started up this year, is spearheading the project.

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“So, Inuusiq Inc. was created by four young Inuit women,” Innusiq chair Iviilik, or Hattie Keller, said. “We started this non-profit because we felt like we’re lost, there’s a piece of us that is missing. We felt disconnected as Native people from our culture.”

Kellr said the Inupiaq word “inuusiq means “Life, or our way of life in Inupiaq. Its sole purpose is to reclaim what we feel is lost, and that’s our language, our culture, our values, our practices.”

Many Native Alaskans’ sense of loss of culture or language started generations ago.

It had a lot to do with the trauma Native people experienced while in school, according to Keller.

“I visited Shishmaref in April,” Keller said. “I spoke to an elder, and I asked her, ‘how did you go to school and how was it?’, and she told me when she went to school they only were able to speak English. They were hit on the hand, or put outside and made to stand outside all day if they spoke any Inupiaq. So, this is two to three generations before me.”

Keller said it takes about three generations of people to integrate a spoken language into a family, so that’s how many generations this language nest will use at one time.

“In 2017, it’ll be tangible,” Keller said. “We’ll have an Inupiaq linguist and a teacher or child care provider that will help the linguist. In turn, the child-care provider/teacher will learn from the linguist while teaching our children, because most likely, our Inupiaq linguist will be an elder. So that’s three generations: the linguist, the next generation is a teacher, and then, the new generation is our children, (ages) zero to 3.”

Keller said for now, this language nest will be based in Shishmaref and will focus on children that are up to 3 years old, kind of like a day care facility but with some differences.

“What makes it a language nest instead of just a day care is that it’s going to provide the parents and the grandparents with learning materials,” Keller said. “Right now, we are renting a building from the city of Shishmaref; it’s the old Northwest campus building. And in future locations, we would like to go throughout the region; progressively, we’ll move to the children as they grow older in different grades. Hopefully, we’ll go to preschool next and then, after preschool, Headstart.”

Ultimately, Keller’s vision for Inuusiq’s role in language and cultural revitalization in the region is much bigger.

She said with enthusiasm, “So, my overall goal in, let’s say, the next 50 years, is that we speak four languages. We speak English, we speak Inupiaq, we speak St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Yupik.”

Inuusiq has already started hiring employees for 2017, including teachers and linguists, to begin working at the new language nest located in Shishmaref.