Alaska Native language groups convene to translate census materials

Hishinlai’ Peter, left, Amaya Shaw and Mary Fields work on translating census education materials into Gwich’in on Thursday, December 12, 2019, at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The Gwich’in was one of four panels featuring Alaska Native language speakers working to translate census materials ahead of the 2020 U.S. Census. (Tripp Crouse/KNBA)

Speakers and language learners came from around the U.S. to a weeklong workshop in Anchorage with the goal of translating census materials.

At the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, a group of about 25 people represented the Gwich’in, Inupiat, Yup’ik and Koyukon cultures from Alaska. They gathered to translate materials for the 2020 Census.

Rochelle Adams, who is Gwich’in Athabascan, works as an Indigenous language specialist with Alaska Public Interest Research Group, or AKPIRG.

“I’ve been doing language work, I’ve pretty much dedicated my life to this work and I’ve done a lot of work in my home region and also statewide but I have never seen anything like this happen,” Adams said. “It’s pretty incredible.”

Organized by groups like AKPIRG and Alaska Counts, panelists sat at tables assigned by language, translating words on the census materials.

“Translation is really hard to do as individuals alone especially because a lot of this work is really creating language around things that we don’t have words for,” Adams said “It takes them being able to speak to each other, and kind of scaffold that knowledge off one another.”

Annauk Olin is Inupiaq and a grad student in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her family flew back to Alaska to be a part of the workshop.

“I think this is a pretty revolutionary movement that we’re working on because it acknowledges that our languages are our birthright and that means that our languages should be spoken in all the different facets of our lives,” Olin said. “When we’re translating Census material into Inupiaq or Denaakk’e (the Koyukon language) or Yup’ik that means that we are telling different agencies that our languages matter and that we prefer to and we require that we communicate in our languages across our communities and with federal or state institutions.” 

Annauk Olin, center, works with a group of Inupiaq speakers Thursday, December 12, 2019, on translating census and other materials at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage. (Tripp J Crouse/KNBA)

Olin’s eight-month-old son Daał lays in her lap while she works alongside her own mom — translating the materials into Inupiaq. Olin says having three generations of her family with her is important.

“My mom is here working on Inupiaq with me and I also brought my son,” she said. “I love this idea of three generations reclaiming our language.” 

Aside from the translation, multiple generations share stories about their cultures. Rochelle Adams, the language specialist, says one thing she has seen during the workshop — is the healing that happens when Alaska Native people share those stories.  

“I’m just so excited about having this cross-cultural connection. It’s been so incredible,” Adams said. “And every day we also talk not just about language, but we’re sharing some really amazing cultural teachings with one another. I love to see these connections being built with one another from around the state.”

Adams says she hopes that the framework they build at the workshop creates a standardization process and create guidelines for future language translation projects.

The first enumeration for the 2020 U.S. Census begins January in Toksook Bay, Alaska.