Inupiaq language survey measures more than just fluency

Kapniaq Lorena Williams sings a song in Iñupiatun for the KI language summit in 2019. (Tiffany Creed/KOTZ)

An Iñupiaq language survey is currently underway across the state. Organizers hope the survey helps build a comprehensive ten-year language plan to help grow and sustain the language.

The Uuktuun Iñupiatun 2020 language survey is being conducted by a group of grassroots organizers called Kipiġniuqtit Iñupiurallanikun, or “Speaking our Language, We are Passionate,” which represents the Northwest Arctic, North Slope and Bering Straits regions, as well as Iñupiat living in other areas.

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The group took shape at the Alaska Native Language Revitalization Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2018. The coalition held their first language summit in Qikiqtaġruk, or Kotzebue, in 2019 and continues to meet monthly. In January, they declared 2020 “The Year of the Iñupiaq Language.” In addition to the survey, their plans for the year included an immersion school opening in Sitŋasuaq, or Nome, a statewide Iñupiatun spelling bee and a summer language intensive.

Qiġñaaq Cordelia Kellie, whose family is from Wainwright, is on the logistics team. She says that language activists have spent lifetimes creating resources, however, there is much room for growth. The group believes in acknowledging the strength of each region’s historical efforts, while unifying for a common purpose.

“One of the needs identified from that was a convening for all Iñupiaq,” Kellie said. “Knowing that we have really powerful, regional conferences and conversations and those definitely need to continue. But also that there is power in relationship building and information sharing.”

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Though the survey is primarily qualitative, it also seeks to get an approximate speaker count among 33,000 Iñupiat counted in the last census. The last known language survey of this kind was conducted a decade ago. Kellie says it’s about how people feel about the language, including barriers.

“We wanted to get a sense of how Iñupiaq language was showing up in people’s lives,” she said. “How people interacted with it and what people’s thoughts, attitudes and senses were with the Iñupiaq language.”

The survey also seeks responses from those who are living outside Iñupiat country. It’s not limited to active speakers or learners but is open to those who have a relationship to the language at all. The conductors of the survey will isolate data to account for different identities, locations and situations.

The survey was impacted by the coronavirus in that its period was prolonged and potentials for door-to-door surveying gave way to phone banking.

“We are really flexible,” Kellie said. “We are happy to make adjustments and if that means lengthening the duration of the survey collection then that’s something that we’re absolutely going to do, so that as many people have access to the survey as possible.”

As an additional incentive, respondents will also be entered to win 20,000 Alaska Airlines miles. The survey is available at www.kipigniutit.org. The group will be taking survey responses until December.