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Sampson gave voice to Inupiat

  • Author: John Creed
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published November 26, 2008

Staunch Inupiaq promoter and defender

Throughout her adult life, Ruthie was the unwavering voice moving Inupiaq language and culture forward in a world awash in English. Today the Inupiat Eskimos of Northwest Alaska speak mostly English or village English, a non-standard form of English that also mixes some Inupiaq words. English, not Inupiaq, has come to rule this part of rural Alaska in recent decades. English in the media. On the Internet. At home. At work. In school. In the grocery store. At the post office. On the playground. Just about everywhere.

Ruthie was trying to stem the tide. She had retired from the Northwest Arctic Borough School District just a few years ago after decades of creating Inupiaq teaching materials for district schools and their Inupiaq instructors. As just one of her many contributions, for years Ruthie also translated proceedings at public meetings for elders, including over the region's lone radio station, KOTZ.

Even though Ruthie and husband Luke had moved upriver from Kotzebue four years ago, she kept advancing the local Native language, teaching Inupiaq by distance delivery through Chukchi College, Kotzebue's satellite branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

As a Chukchi student herself, Ruthie penned an autobiography in an English composition class as she worked toward her associate of arts degree. Her essay was subsequently published in the University of Alaska rural student anthology, Authentic Alaska: Voices of Its Native Writers.

Traditional values

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ruthie sampson making seal oil mid-1990sxx
James Magdanz
Ruthie Sampson making seal oil in Kotzebue.

Ruthie described her early life in the essay, as well as some of the traditional Inupiaq values instilled in childhood, including sharing and cooperation.

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"As I lived in the village, I also learned that younger people were expected to help Elders," she wrote. "We were always to respect and listen to their advice."

Ruthie was especially close to her late grandmother, Dora Ballot, "whom I affectionately called Aana," which means "grandmother" in Inupiaq. As a child, she also revered the couple who had raised her own Aana Dora, elders Richard and Fanny Jones.

"I would often pack water and carry wood into their house," she wrote. Then she'd sit "beside a certain window" in their home just to pass the time, just to enjoy their company.

"Only the gentle hissing of a gasoline lantern and an occasional crackling of the wood stove would accompany the silence," wrote Ruthie, who learned Inupiaq as a child.

"Visiting with this old couple did not require that we talk constantly. This is where I learned to appreciate silence."

Early formative years

During her own childhood Ruthie's home village of Selawik, which today has about 800 residents and lies some 70 miles southeast of Kotzebue, did not have a high school, so at age 14 she moved to Anchorage to attend Dimond High School.

"This is when I realized that, although I had attended school for nine years in Selawik, I had never had a chance to study anything about 'the Eskimos.' I was proud that I could speak the Eskimo language, but I was sad that I never learned to Eskimo dance."

Established locally in 1897, the Friends' Church, which remains a dominant force to this day in most Northwest Arctic villages, had banned traditional Eskimo dancing for decades. Many dances were lost, although some survive and are performed today by local troupes such as the Northern Lights Dancers.

According to anthropologist Ernest S. "Tiger" Burch Jr., in 1890 hardly a single Northwest Arctic Inupiaq was a Christian, yet just 20 years later, Â almost everyone had converted to Christianity, spread mainly by Natives converting fellow Natives.

Ruthie Tatqavin Sampson's faith never wavered throughout her life; in fact, at her death she and her husband Luke were both pastors at the Friends' Church in Shungnak, which with nearby Kobuk enjoys the region's strongest presence of the Inupiaq language. Ruthie regularly translated bible passages for church services.

Reinforcing Inupiaq through education

It didn't sit well with Ruthie that she learned more about "the Eskimos" and other Alaska Natives at an Anchorage high school than she ever had growing up in her own Native village. That experience fueled her vision of teaching and celebrating Inupiaq language and culture in Northwest Arctic schools.

Ruthie's ambition and keen intelligence could have taken her professional career in many directions. In fact, when she first entered college as a teenager-first at UAF and then on to Central Washington State College-she was pursuing social work.

"But I began to doubt my career decision because the social problems seemed so overwhelming and depressing," she wrote. "Although I felt compelled to help my fellow Eskimos, I wanted to work at a job that was fun and interesting."

Back in Kotzebue and working as a disc jockey at KOTZ radio, Ruthie met her future husband when she 19. She would spend most of the rest of her life in the Northwest Arctic, although she also lived in Washington state, in many places throughout Alaska, and even in Okinawa, Japan.

As a young adult, Ruthie began working with village researchers who were gathering traditional stories before they were lost to dying generations of elders. She became fascinated while listening to elders' tapes of their stories and traditional activities. She yearned for young Native students to retain their Native language, culture and heritage for generations to come.

"I became committed to the idea of transferring the information from our Elders to students in the local school system," she wrote.

Language expertise at your service

Ruthie spent the rest of her life publishing a wide array of Inupiaq teaching materials, including books of Inupiaq stories. For years anyone with a question about Inupiaq language or culture knew Ruthie at the school district would willingly supply generous, immediate, methodical answers. (She also graciously offered to give new arrivals their Inupiaq names, including our own children.)

Ruthie's commitment to explain Inupiaq terminology thoroughly and deeply remained as solid as ice at 60 below. She cared deeply about the integrity of the language wherever used. For the Authentic Alaska anthology's glossary, consisting mostly of Inupiaq words, for example, she offered the definition of "ulu" as the Inupiaq word for a "cutting knife with curved blade."

But Ruthie, the humble authority on her Native language, often cast a wider net on even an Inupiaq word that seemed simple enough on its face but is not. She explained for the anthology: "In Yup'ik, ulu means 'tongue,' and the knife is called uluaq."

Inupiat Eskimos share or borrow other words from Yup'ik Eskimos farther south, including the word kuspuk, which comes from the Yup'ik word qaspeq, which means "a hooded top garment, often made of calico material." The Inupiaq word for this same hooded garment is atikluq. Then there's the Inupiaq word for Native food: niqipiaq; for dried meat: paniqtaq; for dried fish: paniqtuq; and for frozen fish: quaq.

Ruthie spent years learning, cataloging and publishing her language for posterity and to buttress her own traditional values.

"I tend to think of my commitment to the Eskimo language and culture as a strong, driving force in my life," Ruthie wrote. "I am able to work with information provided by the Elders. It is the way I feel I can help other Inupiaq people . . . Helping others was instilled in me as a child."

A few years ago Ruthie (her given name) briefly tried to use the more formal "Ruth."

"It's more grown-up sounding now that I've reached middle age," she said with her endearing chuckle, the one that told the world she never took herself too seriously.

The attempt to have people call her Ruth didn't work out so well because Ruthie was, and always will be, well, Ruthie. Or Tatqavin.

Award-winning linguist, educator

Ruthie was honored extensively for her groundbreaking work. She received numerous awards, including the 2007 Alaska Association of Bilingual Education President's Award for "her lifetime commitment to documenting, teaching and writing about Inupiaq language and culture and her many years of administrative service to the children, parents and schools of the Northwest Arctic Borough."

Ruthie's family says she was most happy when out in the country, listening to the birds, picking flowers, enjoying nature. She picked berries by the bucketful. She fished at camp with family and friends. She cherished her time in nature but also loved to read. And visit with elders.

Ruthie's autobiography also describes how the village cooperates after someone dies, from "local talented carpenters" who build the coffin, to others who dig the grave, who fashion the grave marker, who feed all the helpers. Then during Christmas week, the family of the deceased reciprocates with gifts to the helpers, ranging from "a simple pair of socks to a beautiful pair of mukluks."

Farewell

Who would have thought these traditions would be practiced so soon for Ruthie Lee Tatqavin (Ramoth) Sampson? We cannot know the full weight of grief upon her family and closest friends, to whom we extend our deepest sympathy.

May you rest in peace, Tatqavin. You will be forever loved and rememberedYou will always be held closely within the collective heart of a world that dearly misses you.

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Susan B. Andrews and John Creed are journalism/humanities professors at Chukchi College, the Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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