The Arctic Sounder

AFN recognizes an Utqiaġvik family and a long-time linguist and educator

Utqiaġvik residents cheered happily throughout the morning at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention: After Barrow Dancers opened the event that day, two of the AFN President’s awards went to people from the northernmost Alaska town.

Linguist and educator Edna Paniataq Ahgeak MacLean received the Elder of the Year award.

MacLean, who grew up when children were punished for speaking their Native languages, has dedicated 50 years to preserving and revitalizing Iñupiaq. She developed a B.A. program in Iñupiaq language at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has served as the state’s Special Assistant for Rural Education and as the first president of Alaska’s only accredited tribal college, Ilisaġvik College.

“Our language identifies us,” MacLean said. “Through the Iñupiaq language, (our ancestors) brought all the knowledge that they have of the ocean, the land, the interaction between land and ocean, and then their conception of spiritual life and how a community functions.”

MacLean said she didn’t become literate in Iñupiaq until after college, when the head of the Alaska Native Language Center Michael Krauss taught her how to read and write in her Native language. That skill, she said, helped her discover her identity through her language and community.

“Without that gift of literacy, I would not have discovered ... the beauty, and the knowledge, and the richness of the Iñupiaq language, and what our ancestors put together,” she said.

She eventually earned an M.A. from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. In 2014, MacLean published an Iñupiaq language dictionary. Since then has been helping to digitize the dictionary to make learning easier and advocating for immersive language education.


[Alaska Native linguists create a digital Iñupiaq dictionary, combining technology, accessibility and language preservation]

“For the parents and the Elders of our Alaska Native young people – support them. Let them know that you stand for your language, that you stand for your culture,” Maclean said.

Utqiaġvik was also highlighted when the Parents of the Year award went to Jerica “Niayuq” and Wilbur “Qaiyaan” Leavitt.

The couple is raising two daughters Jade Kignak and AmberLee Leavitt in their hometown, immersing them in their Alaska Native culture through camping, speaking Iñupiaq and being on the land.

“We’re always around our culture all the time,” said Jerica Leavitt, standing on stage clad in her traditional regalia. “Allowing our kids to feel the Nuna, the land, and the ocean, our waterways, with every inch of their being instills this sense of belonging.”

Jerica Leavitt works as the assistant professor of Iñupiaq studies at Ilisaġvik College and in her free time, picks edible and medicinal tundra plants and sews traditional clothing. She said she had a realization that she wanted to learn more about her culture and language when she was pregnant with her first daughter, Jade Kignak.

“So ever since she was little, I really just pushed myself, and I learned sewing and I learned more from my language, traditions,” she said.

[Women, youth and children showcase beautiful regalia at Indigenous pageants in the Arctic]

In turn, Qaiyaan Leavitt is a seasoned hunter, whaler and a provider for his family. He grew up hunting and said this is how he wants to raise his children, to make sure that they “know who they are, where they’re from.”

“He’s definitely the definition of a Native man,” Jerica Leavitt said about her husband. With tears in her voice, she added, “He’s never laid a hand on me. He’s so respectful with his actions and words and he is sober. He is a hunter and provider and a million other things that I can keep saying, in my opinion, with the knowledge that he has, it’s like equivalent to a Ph.D.”

Teamwork is the definitive quality of their family, Jerica Leavitt said, and when Qaiyaan Leavitt catches caribou, ducks or geese she and her daughters help him with cutting and preserving the meat.

“Let us continue to clothe our kids in our cultural beauty,” she said. “Let us go out of our comfort zones to do what we can to continue learning our culture and traditions to pass it on. Let us raise them with the mindset for love of the animals in mind. Let us allow them to get dirty and lastly, let us be like Qaiyaan’s family, who don’t say ‘No, get out of the way.’ ”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.