The sound of many voices

Above all else, the ICC event in Kuujjuaq was about speaking and being heard


Emotional issues surrounding language divided and united Inuit from Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland attending last week’s Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Kuujjuaq.

A debate about the need for a unified Inuktitut writing system paled in comparison to the struggle many Inuit face in simply hanging on to their spoken language.

The survival of the spoken language is much more urgent to many Inuit than whether to use Roman orthography, the Cyrillic alphabet or syllabics.

The diversity and similarities among drum dancers and singers from around the circumpolar world underlined the common links Inuit share.

And when performers from every nation gathered for the assembly’s closing, their common movements and shared voice brought tears to the eyes of ICC’s newly elected chair, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who called the performance “the essence of what we are.”

But, throughout the four-day gathering, the theme of this year’s assembly, “Inuit Voice: enlightening the world,” was a poignant reminder that many Inuit can no longer can speak to each other in their own language.

English was the predominant language at the assembly.

Chukotkan delegates told a sad story of language loss. Only 1,500 people still speak the two dialects of the Yupik language — Chaplino and Naukan. And only Yupik over 40 still speak the language in their daily activities.

Teaching the Yupik language to youth has proven to be a problem because existing textbooks are meant for students who can already speak the language.

There are no newspapers or magazines in the Yupik language. The previous government in Chukotka shut down a Yupik newspaper run by Sveltlana Tagjok, a delegate to the recent ICC assembly.

Tagjok likened the situation of Yupiks struggling to keep their language alive to being adrift on the ice.

Her mother was one of the last speakers of Seriniki, a dialect that has since died out.

Tagjok told ICC delegates the story of her mother’s last days when the elderly woman began speaking in Seriniki, her childhood language, and no one could understand her.

“For me it’s very painful,” Tagjok said. “To this day, I do not know what were her last words on her death bed. When we are dying will our children not understand what we are saying?”

Jana Harcharek, an educator from Barrow, Alaska, told a similarly depressing tale of language loss on Alaska’s North Slope.

“We have delivered an expectation that out schools will teach our kids how to speak the language. We have removed ourselves from the responsibility of speaking the language at home and we have arrived at an extremely critical point,” she said.

Harcharek slammed U.S. laws designed to ensure students are proficient in English.

She asked ICC to work aggressively to promote Inuktitut and fight what she called “assimilationist policies” that discourage the use of Inuktitut. She pointed to a new program in the North Slope Borough school system to encourage young whalers and improve their language skills.

Eva Aareak, Nunavut’s Language Commissioner, questioned what ICC and Inuit can do to promote Inuktitut.

“What can we do to help the younger generation to help them preserve their language?” Aareak said.

This question will be on the minds of Inuit when they meet again in Barrow, Alaska, in 2006.

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