With few fluent speakers left, young people are teaching Inupiaq as they learn it

BARROW — The young teachers sparkle with energy in the classroom, but they also feel fear, guilt and disapproval as they teach the ancient Native language of Inupiaq to students on Alaska's North Slope. Because they aren't fluent themselves.

Teachers who spoke Inupiaq as a first language entered the classroom in the 1980s and now most have retired. With hardly any fluent speakers left under 50 years old, the North Slope Borough School District started hiring young teachers who were learning the language themselves.

“In my estimation, these are the bravest, most courageous people on Earth,” said Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, the district’s Director of Inupiaq Education. “With our first learner-teacher, the feedback we got from the community instantly was, ‘What are you doing hiring a non-speaker in the classroom to teach the language?’”

Sikkattuaq Jamie Harcharek, 29, Pausauraq's daughter-in-law, grew up in Anchorage and attended West High, among other schools. Her grandmother planted the seed of her language and culture.

"Besides my parents, she helped raise me," she said. "Hearing her speak Inupiaq to her friends and to family, it kind of made me wonder why she never spoke (it) to us. And when I got to the age to where I was actually able to ask her those kinds of questions, she told me stories about when she was younger. She didn't want to teach her children Inupiaq because she was punished for speaking Inupiaq, both emotionally and physically.

"After she passed away, I really wanted to know that side of the family a lot more, and to know where we come from," Harcharek said. "I took Spanish in high school, and I was wondering, 'Why in the heck am I learning this?' … It got me thinking I need to dig deeper into my roots."

She began teaching at Fred Ipalook Elementary School in Barrow last school year. Now she wants a career teaching Inupiaq language and culture. She would like to teach a language immersion class, with no English spoken. But that's a long way off, as she still needs to get her language skills up to the speed of her thought.


The North Slope district, well funded with property taxes from the oil industry, has worked for decades to preserve and pass on the culture of the Iñupiat. I first met Pausauraq Harcharek, the Inupiaq education director, in 2001, when she had recently published a textbook to help students use whaling camp as a classroom for their academic subjects — math, language arts and so on.

But if the goal was to help students develop an identity and sense of purpose through their culture, a workbook couldn't accomplish it. Nor could language classes a few times a week make students fluent in a language they rarely used. Harcharek and others realized that the culture had become an add-on in their schools.

In 2006, the district began developing a new, more holistic approach to passing on the culture, beginning with the question, asked of a group of elders and community leaders, "What does a successful 18-year-old Inupiaq person look like?" Harcharek and Cathy Tagnak Rexford wrote about the process in a paper in the Journal of American Indian Education last year.

The work produced an Inupiaq Learning Framework, which does more than add a taste of culture. The framework's goal is to integrate the Inupiaq world view into teaching. Education would reflect their way of knowing, their sense of spiritual connection and their traditional learning styles, based on active sharing between teacher and learner.

Sikkattuaq Harcharek said her work learning and teaching at the same time reflects that active exchange.

"I see it through their eyes," she said. "I'm learning alongside with them, so I know the struggle."

Flora Tagnak Rexford became one of the first non-fluent language teachers not long after the district began working on the framework. She grew up in Kaktovik, where her grandparents spoke Inupiaq, but her parents attended boarding schools and did not. The Inupiaq she learned in school was not enough to become fluent.

Seeing the negativity the teachers were facing, Pausauraq Hacharek set up a meeting in which the young women spoke in the middle of the room while elders and leaders listened without speaking, seated around them.

"It was very scary having to voice your struggles," Rexford said. "I am not a public speaker. I get all red, and my voice gets shaky and I want to cry. But in front of kids, I am very loud and outspoken. But all those feelings do come out, wishing you could speak the language more, and help the kids."

Pausauraq Harcharek said, "We are our own oppressors."

Alaska Natives' cultures developed from the place they live for a reason. Culture is a tool for survival, our shared response to the world and its challenges. That remains true even as physical survival challenges recede, made easy by technology and money. In this swirl of change, culture may be more important than ever.

I think these young women are who are learning and teaching at the same time are perfect culture bearers for a changing future we can hardly imagine.

Sikkattuaq Harcharek said she feels guilty for not being fluent yet. But she is raising her daughter to hear Inupiaq at home. Her life is fully immersed in her culture. Someday she will be a respected elder, even as a former West High student.

In one of her classes she has a girl of Filipino and white heritage who says she wants to grow up to be an Inupiaq teacher like her.

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Flora Tagnak Rexford is from Kivalina. She is from Kaktovik.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. Among other books, he is the author of "The Whale and the Supercomputer," which tells the story of climate change in the Arctic from the perspectives of Inupiaq hunters and Western scientists.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.