When a group of Northwest Alaska teachers listened to the “Raven and the Seal” story in Iñupiaq for the first time, some of them didn’t understand the words.
On the third day of their language immersion training in Kotzebue last month, they could tell the story by themselves.
Ten Iñupiaq instructors from Northwest Arctic villages gathered last month for a three-day training on language and culture immersion techniques, such as storytelling and making beaver hats. Immersion instructor Annauk Olin told a traditional story, Tulgaġlu Qasrigiaġlu, or “Raven and the Seal,” speaking only in Iñupiaq and using pictures, gestures and lots of repetition. Elders from the Iñupiaq Language Commission provided mentorship along the way.
“We set them up to take that story and immersion teaching method to their classroom,” Olin said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to create speakers.”
The “Raven and the Seal” story was broken down into digestible parts and told in sets. Teachers learned five relatively simple phrases in the first set, laughing together and supporting each other throughout the training, Olin said. The following parts were built upon the first set, with a gradually increasing complexity. On the last day, each teacher had a chance to retell the story twice — but only after they heard each phrase of the story tens of times.
“That’s how immersion works: We learn and acquire language by listening,” Olin said. “The way the endangered languages are often taught is by reading and writing and explaining grammar in English. ... We have many spaces where language is being taught but very few places where language is being spoken.
“To create speakers, we need to teach language how our ancestors taught it.”
For thousands of years, storytelling and sharing knowledge through activities was used to teach younger generations the language, as well as morals and the history of land and animals, Olin said. When students are taught stories in English that don’t pertain to their Iñupiaq identity, it can create a disconnect from their Iñupiaq way of being, she said.
“By centering our education in Iñupiaq, we are teaching our children what it means to be Iñupiaq and live in the Iñupiaq world,” she said. “We let them know that they matter, that they are seen, that they are heard, and that they belong to a community and culture.”
Olin and Reid Magdanz created the Iñupiaq curriculum rooted in immersive storytelling and cultural activities and piloted it in April 2022. The inspiration for the curriculum came after they attended an immersion training in Anchorage led by the Salish School of Spokane.
For the past 40 years, teachers in the Northwest Arctic region have been mostly relying on bilingual methods, using a mixture of English and Iñupiaq to talk to the students, said Qaliaq Raymond Woods, culture and language coordinator for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. But, interest in an immersive style of teaching is growing.
“We’ve been working with our Iñupiaq teachers,” Woods said, “getting them just to speak the language while they’re teaching the language.”
Starting in January, Olin will continue working with the Iñupiaq teachers an hour each week to practice storytelling. In April 2023, at another in-person Iñupiaq training, each teacher will share their story.
“These stories will be developed within each teacher’s respective community and dialect with the help from Iñupiaq elders,” Olin said.
Elders from the Iñupiaq Language Commission also played a big part in the last month’s training in Kotzebue, Olin said. They helped the instructors find the right on-the-spot phrases and commands to help the group stay in the language. They also supported teachers.
“I asked elders to give words of encouragement and advice,” Olin said. “It was so wonderful to have teachers be praised in Iñupiaq. (The elders) told us to keep going and that they will always be there for questions or help.”
Besides storytelling, another immersion technique during the training involved learning to make beaver hats. The teachers jumped in and started learning patterns and correct skin sewing methods, asking elders questions.
“Most of us walked out from that training knowing how to make our own beaver hats,” Olin said. “We absorbed the language through experience.”
Sewing and setting nets for fishing are examples of the cultural activities necessary for teaching Iñupiaq, Woods said.
“Here in the Northwest region, it has to be taught hands-on: You actually have to take kids away from the classroom to do cultural activities,” he said. “You cannot simulate it in a classroom and say, ‘OK, that’s how our culture is.’ They will not learn it without experiencing it.”
Woods visits Northwest Arctic villages throughout the year to take children to hunt, fish, haul wood for the elders and process meat.
“When they see a caribou laid on top of the tarp, inside the gymnasium, they’re all excited,” Woods said. “They all want to touch it, they all want to feel it, they all want to know all about it.”
Woods said that he doesn’t want Iñupiaq culture to be replaced by a Western style of living. But to preserve Iñupiaq language and culture, teachers and students need to be excited about using it.
“They have to have a desire to and have pride in their language, in order for them to be interested in learning it,” he said. “You got to make it exciting.”