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Saving Iñupiaq

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Saving Iñupiaq

“The Iñupiaq language has a complex and robust lexicon related to ice conditions in part because it is linked to our survival. If you’re out hunting and you aren’t able to describe to your hunting partner whether the ice is stable enough, it could cost your lives,” she says. “With climate change, some elders don’t have in their vocabulary words to describe how the ice is changing, so I think what’s important in the future is for us to be able to adapt the language to be able to describe these changing conditions exactly.”
For Olin, that means there need to be more young Iñupiaq speakers. “We need resources to teach in the language so that we have an upcoming generation of speakers even after our beloved elders pass on,” she said, noting that she is hoping her efforts will help undo the damage done by missionaries and the U.S. government, which for more than 100 years forced Iñupiat children to speak English in school.
A foundation in linguistics
Olin is beginning this work at home by speaking Iñupiaq to her son. “When I speak English to my son, it feels like a watered-down version of love, but when I speak Iñupiaq to him, the connection I feel with him is much stronger and intimate.”
To ensure that she is using the language properly, she is working with a mentor, native speaker Edna Ahgeak MacLean, a former faculty member at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and former president of Iḷisaġvik College. MacLean, who has produced both an Iñupiaq dictionary and a grammar, has helped Olin to script conversations so that she and her husband (a tribal member from another Alaska Native group, the Koyukon Athabascan, who speak Denaa’kke) can engage in simple activities — such as making pancakes — while conversing entirely in Iñupiaq.
At the same time, Olin is developing a curriculum for teaching Iñupiaq through her work at MITILI. Inspired by the work of the late MIT Professor Ken Hale, who dedicated his career to the study and support of indigenous languages of the Americas and of Australia, MITILI is a two-year program that provides a full scholarship that covers tuition, fees and health insurance, plus a stipend.
Olin is taking linguistics classes and working with her MIT advisor, Professor Norvin Richards, to gain an understanding of phonology, syntax, and language acquisition. “Some of the critical materials my mentor has written use many linguistic terms and concepts,” she says. “It has made a huge difference to be able to understand what tools are available to break down a lot of these linguistics-heavy resources.”
For example, Richards has helped Olin better understand how to combine morphemes, the smallest units of meaning in a language, to create words. “There are complicated rules that must be followed and practiced to correctly string morphemes together in Iñupiaq,” she says. For instance, in Iñupiaq it’s common for a morpheme to be attached to a word stem to indicate an action or state of being, a function usually performed in English by a verb.
Long-term survival of indigenous languages
“One of the things I appreciate about Annauk’s work on Iñupiaq is how intellectually omnivorous she is,” says Richards, who has for decades worked to help revive endangered languages, including Wampanoag, a native language of Eastern Massachusetts, and Lardil, an Aboriginal language of Australia. “She’s able to build on very careful work by the great Iñupiaq scholar Edna Ahgeak MacLean, but she’s clearly determined to develop a language program that incorporates every technique that she thinks will work.”
Noting that the indigenous languages of the United States are all threatened, Richards says Olin is doing work that is critical to maintaining the world’s linguistic diversity — learning Iñupiaq “through sheer force of will.” “She’s tireless and dedicated, and very smart,” he says. “It’s a real privilege to get to work with her.”
Supporting students like Olin has been the central mission of the MITILI since its founding in 2004. “The goals of the MITILI are ones that Ken Hale spoke and wrote about, eloquently and often,” Richards says. “One is to improve our understanding of the languages of the world, not by subjecting indigenous languages to study by outsiders, but by offering indigenous scholars ways to study their own languages with the tools that academic linguists have developed. And another, at least as important, is to try to help indigenous communities give their traditional languages their best chance of long-term survival.”
Olin’s ultimate goal is to fulfill this mission for her community, and her initial plan is to create an Iñupiaq mentor-apprenticeship program. “I’m also very interested in creating a school where the mission, leadership, and content is driven by Iñupiaq people and community — where we learn the language but also how to harvest and process traditional foods, sew traditional clothing, and most importantly, how to treat one another as human beings,” she says.
“As an Iñupiat, it is my responsibility to help provide a place where young people can have access to their identity and culture,” Olin says. “Many of our Iñupiat people are working to overcome historical trauma. Language is a powerful medicine that will help heal our communities.”

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and design director: Emily Hiestand
Senior writer: Kathryn O’Neil

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