The number of fluent Iñupiaq speakers has declined in the last decade, but the interest in language revitalization has been growing, according to the results from a survey released this month.
The 2020-22 Iñupiaq Language Survey was created by a group of language activists, Kipigniuqtit Iñupiuraallanikun, with the goal of better understanding the status of, and attitudes toward, the Iñupiaq language across Iñupiat lands and beyond.
The results showed that while the number of proficient speakers has been declining, a significant number of people speak Iñupiaq and want to improve their language skills, said Myles Creed, a Kipigniuqtit Iñupiuraallanikun volunteer and a doctorate student in linguistics at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
“In terms of high fluency, we do see a decline in the last decade or two,” Creed said. But, he added, “we see that there’s been increased interest and increased efforts to engage in Iñupiaq revitalization. The vast majority of people who were taking the survey said that they wanted to get involved, they wanted to learn more Iñupiaq.”
Kipigniuqtit Iñupiuraallanikun — which translates as “those who are passionate through speaking our language” — took on the initiative to create, distribute and analyze the survey to estimate the number of Iñupiaq speakers and gain insight “into the attitudes, barriers, successes, and motivations” of the Iñupiaq community, according to the survey description.
Knowing how many Inupiaq speakers are left, where they live and what kind of resources they have access to can be helpful in applying for grants and creating a plan for language revitalization, said Kacey Qunmiġu Hopson, an active member of the Iñupiaq language revitalization community.
“In order for us to revitalize Iñupiaq, we need to know, essentially, what our community’s needs are,” she said. “We need to know how Iñupiaq is showing up in their lives.”
The survey — the first of its kind since 2009 ― was started in February 2020, with the support of the North Slope Borough Iñupiat Heritage, Culture, and Language Commission, Aqqaluk Trust, NANA Language Commission and Kawerak Inc.
A total of 1,838 responders included people from several Alaska regions — including the North Slope, Northwest Arctic and Bering Strait — as well as other states and countries such as Greenland, Canada and Russia. When analyzing the results, language experts extrapolated the number of responders to the total population in every location based on census estimates, Creed said.
“It’s not a scientific survey: We just did our best to try to reach as many people as possible,” Creed said. “Those numbers are not something to take at face value; they’re just to give a rough estimate of where we’re at and where we’re heading.”
Still, the results showed that the number of fluent Iñupiaq speakers has declined in the last 13 years from 2,144 speakers to 1,250, Creed said.
On a positive note, experts also concluded that the majority of Iñupiat — estimated at about 20,500 people across the country and the world — have some knowledge of Iñupiaq. About 6,000 of those people don’t have a full mastery of the language but do have intermediate skills. Only 18% of survey takers had no knowledge of Iñupiaq, the results showed.
“It was a vast majority of the people who had some familiarity with Iñupiaq language, from the basic ability to very high fluency,” Creed said. “The interventions that have happened this last few decades have definitely supported (the revitalization trend), ... and that’s really encouraging.”
Hopson said the more speakers there are, the easier it is to create immersive environments, beneficial for language preservation and revitalization.
Another positive takeaway from the survey results is that people hear Iñupiaq in a variety of settings, such as local gyms, colleges like Utqiaġvik’s Iḷisaġvik College, local restaurants and stores, libraries and airports, which can also contribute to creating immersive environments, Hopson said.
“It was encouraging to see that the language is still being heard in these other domains outside of the home,” she said.
Now that the survey is complete, Kipigniuqtit Iñupiuraallanikun is focused on planning another language summit where people from across the region will be able to discuss current language needs and create a language revitalization plan, Creed said.
Language immersion programs, teacher training, healing of intergenerational trauma, increasing language visibility and governmental support are some of the steps that could help the process, Creed said.
Hopson said that developing a master apprenticeship program where learners would be paired up with fluent speakers for several years to deepen their language skills would be another tool to strengthen the language.
“There’s a lot of exciting things happening across our region,” Hopson said. “And that’s what gives me hope.”
The survey results are available at kipigniutit.org.