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At conference, Iñupiaq language links ?youth to culture

Mary Schaeffer has spent a lot of her 75 years trying to preserve the Iñupiaq language. And, even though strides have been made over the most recent decades, there's still much work to be done in the schools and at home.

Last week in Kotzebue, youth and elders from all the communities in the Northwest Arctic gathered for a conference focused on language and other traditional values. Participants took part in round tablediscussions and workshops aimed to continue the dialogue about culture and traditions between young people and their elders.

And while the groups are often brought together within their communities for events and gatherings, the region-wide event last week was the first of its kind, said Schaeffer, the commissioner of the Northwest Arctic Iñupiaq Language Commission, on Thursday.

The conference, which was hosted by Aqqaluk Trust, had been in the works for more than a year, she said, adding that organizers wanted to bring youth into a yearly language commission and Elders gathering.

In the morning sessions, participating youth -- three from each village traveled to Kotzebue for the event -- wrote and performed skits in English and Iñupiaq, wrote and read short stories and, later in the conference, competed in an Iñupiaq spelling bee hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Chukchi Campus.

"The Iñupiaq language is the foundation of who we are," Schaeffer said. "We were put on this part of the Earth to be Iñupiat. At the conference we took the dying arts that we know in our region and put them on as workshops."

Elders spoke to the young people about the Inupiat values, while the youth responded with what those values mean to them today and how they affect everyday life.

"Most of the elders are fluent speakers and Iñupiaq is their first language," Schaeffer said. "We're probably the last fluent speakers. And then you get the perspective from the side of the child, the school kids, and they don't know how to speak the Iñupiaq language. English is their first language. But everybody wants to learn."

In all but one of the communities in the region, there are Iñupiaq language teachers in the schools that teach the language on a regular basis. But it's not enough, Schaeffer said.

"The young people don't know their identities and they don't know their own foundation as Iñupiat people, and as a result we're having more problems with drop off rates, we're having more social problems, family problems, that kind of stuff," Schaeffer said. "If you're not happy with yourself then you're not happy as a human being."

The answer, she added, is more teaching and engagement in schools and through extracurricular activities.

Lena Tickett, 62, from Kobuk was one of the elders participating in the conference and is a bilingual teacher in the community.

Though she just started her post teaching Iñupiaq in the school, she is looking forward to seeing the progress.

"If they are patient and let me teach them, they will learn," Tickett said.

Among the students at the event was Autumn Barr, 17, from Deering. She doesn't speak Iñupiaq, she said, but enjoys participating in traditional activities.

At the conference, youth learned how to make mukluk bottoms, sunshine ruffs (parka ruffs for women) and how to make and mend nets. She said the net mending was especially useful as she fishes with her family often.

"We learn from the elders," she said. "We learn to respect everything."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.