KOTZEBUE — Qutan Lambert loved coming to Nikaitchuat Iḷisaġviat Tribal School as a child, especially when it was circle time.
“My first memories were made here,” Lambert said. “We got to do so many things culturally. … We’d always have elders come in and show and tell, and tell stories.”
Years later, Lambert’s daughter comes to the same language immersion school in Kotzebue, learning to speak Iñupiaq as well as cut caribou meat, pickle herring eggs and train dogs for mushing.
This is part of what all students at Nikaitchuat do every day: The school offers language classes and traditional activities, taught in accordance with the subsistence cycles of the local Iñupiaq culture.
“The immersion school is the only one in the NANA region right now,” school director Candice Suksran Baldwin said, referring to Northwest Alaska. “It’s pretty awesome to see the children come in not knowing any Inupiaq ... and within the first couple months, they start to understand and speak it. Because children are like a sponge, and they just adapt to the language so quickly.”
Learning the Iñupiaq language in Nikaitchuat involves more than learning new words, grammatical structures and pronunciation. It also means preserving or revitalizing cultural identity — the relationship the Iñupiat have to the land, community and past, said one of the school founders, Pete Schaeffer.
“We realized that we needed to do something to try to preserve our way of life, and language was one of the first places to start,” he said about the decision to start the language immersion school.
Besides keeping the language alive, Schaeffer said, the school strives to create a learning atmosphere that will embrace Native culture and nurture “a strong sense of identity” in children, helping them “to be proud of who they are.”
Open for almost 25 years, Nikaitchuat teaches about 20 students from preschool age to fifth grade, Baldwin said. Being a part of the Kotzebue tribal government, the school operates separately from the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, but students graduating from Nikaitchuat can gain admittance to district schools.
When children come to Nikaitchuat, they leave English at the door and dive into the sounds and rhythms of the Iñupiaq language. Each week, students learn new vocabulary — starting with nouns and progressing toward phrases, sentences and grammatical structures — related to a thematic unit that ties into natural events and the seasonal cycle.
“We are teaching the little kids about daily living in a month,” said the lead teacher, Nina Piñagin Nanouk. “What animals come? What birds come? What do we use the animals for? What do we use the fish for? How do we get the fish? What tools do we use?”
By the end of the program, children end up speaking Iñupiaq fluently, Baldwin said, and become proficient in their cultural activities.
Each language lesson theme goes hand in hand with practical projects in the curriculum, such as butchering traditional animals, fishing, trapping or learning about dog mushing by meeting the sled dogs.
“Last week, we were on fishing, so we brought a fish in and cut it up and then we’re pickling the eggs,” Baldwin said. “They get to get right in there and help cut it out, that’s the only way they’re gonna learn.”
The activities are always age-appropriate, said another founder, Polly Agniq Schaeffer, so getting involved in ice fishing can mean helping make ice holes or creating traditional fishing tools from paper.
Like any other language, Iñupiaq is alive and evolving. When describing an object or concept that doesn’t have direct translation in Iñupiaq, the teachers invite an elder to consult on the word choice, Nanouk said.
The curriculum is constantly evolving too.
“We’re coming into the month of May, and it’s super big; it’s when the water drains out,” Nanouk said. “We have all the topics in there, according to what we see now and when the curriculum was made. It seems like it changed a little bit: Either we freeze later, (or) we melt early.”
Teachers adjust the lesson plan according to the time when the water freezes or the ice breaks.
“We feed off the land, we live off the land,” Nanouk said. “So we need to see what the weather’s going to be like every day.”
Besides talking, reading and practicing traditional skills, students also sing during classes and downtime. That makes the process of learning pronunciation easier, Baldwin said.
“It kind of loosens your tongue for the language,” Baldwin said.
Before the pandemic, students would share their songs with elders, and “the elders, they really loved it,” Baldwin said. “Some of them would look forward to it and they would wonder, ‘Where are the kids today?’”
While visits to elders are still on pause because of the pandemic, 12 Nikaitchuat students recently recorded their singing to broadcast on the KOTZ radio station.
“There were so many songs,” Baldwin said. “They didn’t want to stop.”
Another way the school teaches children Iñupiaq culture is through practicing altruistic leadership. In one of the recent classes, a student named Nuyaagiq was the leader for the day, so she brought yogurts and snacks to share with the class.
“A leader needs to show others how good he is by not keeping things to himself but by sharing with others,” Nanouk said. “Just like on a prize catch of, say, a beluga — sure, (the leader) can keep some parts, but the rest of it he needs to share. And that’s how we were taught, that’s how we live — by sharing.”
To create the learning plan for the school, the founders collaborated with the Iñupiaq Language Council, the Language Commission and the Elders Council.
“There were so many elders across the region who participated,” said another founder and former Nikaitchuat teacher, Nauyaq Wanda Baltazar. “There were men’s gatherings where several men gathered to talk about tools, hunting, trapping, sled building, Eskimo games, celebrations and weather patterns.”
Baltazar said that since local people in the region contributed so much to build the curriculum, it now belongs to the future generations.
“Like it’s stated in our values, the Iñupiat Iḷitusiat, ‘Every Iñupiaq is responsible to all other Iñupiaq for the survival of our cultural spirit and the values and traditions through which it survives,’ ” she said. “‘Through our extended family, we retain, teach and live our Iñupiaq way.’”