The Arctic Sounder

‘When the opportunity comes, you strike’: Iñupiaq language teacher featured in popular Netflix show

Jamie Sikkattuaq Harcharek has never taken an acting class or appeared in a play. This month, the Iñupiaq teacher from Utqiaġvik made her screen debut in the Emmy-winning Netflix show “Sweet Tooth.”

“I live in Utqiaġvik,” she said. “Up here, when the opportunity comes, you strike.”

Harcharek appears in “Sweet Tooth,” a fantasy series developed by Jim Mickle, Robert Downey Jr. and others that’s based on a comic by Jeff Lemire. The show started streaming in 2021, and the third and final season premiered June 6, ranking in the top 10 Netflix shows for several weeks.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world after a global pandemic, the show follows the story of a boy, Gus, who is part human and part deer. Gus is searching for his family and home, and in the latest season, his journey takes him to Alaska.

To give the audience a glimpse into the history of “hybrids” like Gus, the show time-travels to the 1900s and introduces Harcharek’s character, named Ikiaq, which means “a split between two” in Iñupiaq. Ikiaq is the mother of the first hybrid, known as the caribou man and named Munaqsriri.

Harcharek used to be an Iñupiaq language and history teacher at Fred Ipalook Elementary School for several years and is now the cultural specialist for student services and the Iñupiaq language adjunct instructor for Iḷisaġvik College. She said her students have been reaching out to her after seeing her in “Sweet Tooth.”

“It’s been cute seeing past students’ faces light up and hearing ‘Iḷisaurri (teacher) Sikkattuaq, I’ve seen you on Netflix!’” she said. “I hope it brings them courage and strength to pursue their own passions.


“With what I did, that was just another door that opened up to make sure that the future generations can see somebody else that looks like them, that is speaking the language of our ancestors,” Harcharek said about her role.

[Iñupiaq author wins national honors for her debut novel celebrating unity and beauty in Indigenous cultures]

The power of the Iñupiaq language

Harcharek’s character Ikiaq speaks and sings in Iñupiaq during the show, and Harcharek said her language proficiency played a role in helping her get the part.

Harcharek was born and raised in Anchorage, and her family is from Point Lay. Her grandmother Lucy Aagluaq Inks was fluent in Iñupiaq, but after living through the boarding school era, she preferred speaking English around her children and grandchildren so they “didn’t have to endure what she endured,” Harcharek said. As a child, Harcharek would hide around the house to listen to her grandmother speak her Native language.

About 18 years ago, Harcharek married Qaiyaan Harcharek and moved to Utqiaġvik. Together, they have four children and teach them the Iñupiaq language and traditional practices.

“I’m blessed to live in both worlds and so are my children,” she said.

Harcharek began teaching Iñupiaq and history at Fred Ipalook Elementary School in Utqiaġvik in 2015. As a teacher, she said, she always makes sure her students learn how to introduce themselves in Iñupiaq so they can carry their cultural identity with pride.

“I want to make sure that I set an example for generations to make them understand that who you are is important, where you come from is really important so that you have a better understanding of where you’re going to be in the future,” she said.

Playing Ikiaq

While Harcharek had opportunities to connect with her culture, she said her love for acting was harder to pursue.

Starting when she was little, Harcharek would watch the way actors spoke and moved on screen and always wondered what acting would feel like. But because she moved around a lot, she said she struggled to have consistency in her life that would allow her to attend acting classes. The only Iñupiaq person she’d ever seen on TV was Irene Bedard from “Smoke Signals.”

As an adult, Harcharek had appeared in advertisements but had never performed on stage or screen. Then when her co-worker at Iḷisaġvik mentioned that “Sweet Tooth” producers were looking for an Iñupiaq woman to audition for a role, Harcharek decided to try — and kept her audition secret, even from her husband.

“Some people hold on to these dreams that they’ve got and they keep it quiet,” she said. “This was my opportunity, and I saw it, and I took it and went and did the best I could with it.”

“I was nervous but everything is nerve-racking when you’re doing it for the first time on a higher scale,” she said.

To prepare for the role, Harcharek said she read Jeff Lemire’s comic series, watched acting lesson videos online and read material from different acting courses.

When it was time to travel to New Zealand for filming, Harcharek tried to learn as much as she could from her seasoned colleagues.

In turn, other actors and producers had something to learn from Harcharek.

As the only Alaskan on set, Harcharek said she shared her knowledge about the Iñupiaq culture and language. To make sure her character’s speech in Iñupiaq was grammatically and stylistically correct, Harcharek consulted her mother-in-law, Jana Pausauraq Harcharek, who has played a large role in revitalizing the Iñupiaq language.


Harcharek’s character’s son, Munaqsriri, is played by Nathaniel Lees, who is not Iñupiaq, but Harcharek said that “he wanted to represent his character in the utmost respectful way.”

“We talked about unspoken mannerisms and both verbal and nonverbal communication within Inuit culture norms,” she said.

When Harcharek mentioned on set that one of her character’s parkas did not follow the traditional style for women’s parkas worn during the 1900s period, she said the costume designer Amanda Neale decided to redo the garment, following Harcharek’s advice.

“She said, ‘I got it, it’s done,’” Harcharek said. “The next day, during my fitting, Amanda presented a whole new parka that I was absolutely amazed with.”

The second parka Jamie Harcharek’s character wore was a replica of what Harcharek’s great-great-aunt had worn in a picture she showed Neale.

Jamie Harcharek’s husband, Qaiyaan Harcharek, said that he was proud of his wife for asking the production to portray Iñupiaq culture properly and adjust the clothing.

“She made it known, and they respected that she wanted it to be as close as a representation of who we are as people,” he said.

‘A big moment’

When the new season premiered this month, one of the reviews most important to Harcharek came from her family in Utqiaġvik, she said.


“Seeing her on the show was absolutely beautiful and amazing. I can’t be more proud of her and her accomplishments. ... What was even more amazing was the excitement I saw when our children saw her,” Qaiyaan Harcharek said. “It’s a big moment for her, our family, our community, and all the young Native girls and women in rural Alaska, seeing one of their own Indigenous women on the big screen.”

Harcharek’s 12-year-old niece, Emily Richey, who has been a fan of the show, didn’t know about her aunt’s performance. Watching “Sweet Tooth” together, Harcharek filmed her niece’s surprise, tears and joy.

“She got up and she starts crying, and she’s jumping all over the place, and she’s like, ‘Is that really you? That’s you!’” Harcharek said. “It was the most adorable, genuine, just amazing reaction.”

With her “Sweet Tooth” role, Harcharek said she hopes to encourage children in her family and Indigenous youths overall to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams.

“Being on something that is so large, I’m hoping it’s an encouragement for those who might have suppressed feelings about who they are,” she said. “Hopefully, that gives them that strength and that drive.”

[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported where Jamie Harcharek was born. She was born in Anchorage, not in Point Lay.]

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.