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Rural Alaska

North Slope Elder James Nageak remembered for humor, love of language

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: December 26, 2017
  • Published December 26, 2017

Inupiaq James Nageak watches young people learn a traditional Gwich’in fiddle dance at a workshop during the Elders and Youth Conference at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A big smile and a hearty laugh often accompanied North Slope Elder James Mumiġan Nageak on his journey through life.

"He made people laugh a lot," said his wife, Anna.

Nageak died last week at age 77, following an accident in his hometown of Anaktuvuk Pass.

James and Anna first laid eyes on each other many decades ago. She was a Sunday school teacher and he was working with youths.

"So that's how we met," she said. She was about five years younger than he was and they married early, she recalled.

"I'm not really one that will do a whole lot. I'm one of the shy ones, I guess. They say opposites attract," she laughed. "He was outgoing and I was a shy person, and I still don't go forward and give out information about anything — not unless they ask."

The pair spent more than 50 years by one another's side. Perhaps because of their differences, they worked well together, spending years on projects dedicated to revitalizing Iñupiatun, something that was near and dear to James's heart, his wife said.

"Maybe because our people were losing the language already — that's why he was interested in that," she said.

Nageak spent the better part of his life teaching Iñupiatun, writing grammar guides for the language, speaking with younger people and helping out with projects dedicated to cultural knowledge. He was one of the consulting elders on the 2014 video game "Never Alone: Kisima Inŋitchuŋa," which he also voiced.

"I did a lot of helping with translations, because we did a lot of higher words in Iñupiaq, which a lot of people had lost already," recalled Anna. "We did a lot of that, and I was one of the people I guess he would ask for the point of meaning for words, or what he thought I understood it to be. He did that for years and years with me."

Nageak was born in Utqiaġvik, then called Barrow, and was raised in Kaktovik. It was in his early years that he learned to speak both languages he would use the most in his life.

"We had an Iñupiat grade school teacher who only spoke English in the classroom from nine to four, but when the school day ended, he'd speak our language," Nageak wrote for his "Never Alone" autobiography. "We had one classroom for everyone, and our teacher used the higher grade children to help teach the younger ones. It was a small village, and we were all related, so we were used to helping out with other kids in our community."

He recalled spending evenings with his grandfather reading Bible verses in English, which is, in part, how he learned to write the language.

"My mom had a first or second grade education in Barrow before the Depression started, and everyone was needed to make a living, hunting and gathering," Nageak wrote. "When I asked her for help with my homework in grade school, I first realized I was learning something my parents had never encountered before. That's when you realize you have to listen."

Once he was older, Nageak attended Sheldon Jackson College, in Sitka. He recalled that there were a number of North Slope people at the school who would all speak the Iñupiaq language with one another, "so there was no danger we would lose it," he wrote.

"He was interested in language, anyways. Anything to do with the language, he was always good at," said Anna.

He went on to study at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he was tapped to teach an Iñupiaq language course through the newly formed Alaska Native Language Center. It was also in Fairbanks that he gave Iñupiat service at the First Presbyterian Church, he noted.

From there, he attended a Christian school in Arizona, and then completed seminary and a master's degree in divinity in Iowa, where he also studied Greek and Hebrew.

He was dedicated to his faith, and used it to guide him through his years. He and Anna faced hardship in their lives, along with blessings. They had four children together, all of whom are now deceased. They adopted a son and had two grandchildren, as well.

"He cared about the religion, so I think he would want (young people) to carry that. He cared much about that and wanted people to learn ideas of religion," said Anna. "I guess he wanted to pass that on, and I guess that's why he was a youth coordinator in the beginning — the moral codes and all of that of the religion."

Along with his faith and his community and culture, it was compromise and trust that saw Nageak through the years, Anna said with a smile.

"I was young when I got married to him, and so we learned how to live with each other," she said. "We compromised a lot in the later years on who (would) do what. Sometimes I ended up doing things that he used to do."

Outside of their home, even into his later years, Nageak could often be found around the North Slope and in other parts of the state, advocating for the language he dearly loved.

He served as a vice chair of the Iḷisaġvik College Board of Trustees, and held a seat on the North Slope Borough's Iñupiat History Language and Culture Commission.

He attended conferences and gatherings, sometimes dancing, sometimes singing, and always keeping an eye on youths and language. Last year, at the annual Elders and Youth Conference, Nageak used his magnetic personality to encourage young people from the North Slope and Northwest Arctic to try and speak Iñupiatun without being shy.

"I want to encourage you young people to learn something about grammar," he said with a smile. "There's some books — the grammatical structure of the North Slope Iñupiaq from A to Z."

Looking at the students around him and beaming from ear to ear, he chuckled:

"We don't have Z, unless you're sleeping and someone puts a lot of Zs by you."

The funeral for James Mumiġan Nageak was held Dec. 22 in Anaktuvuk Pass.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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