Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat

Native Village of Kotzebue serves the people of Qikiktagruk through creation of tribal immersion school.

A unique program in a private school in Kotzebue is celebrating its 10th year of providing an Inupiaq immersion program to about 20 children each year between the ages of 3 and 7.

Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat, which translates to “anything is possible” and “a place of learning,” is dedicated to instilling the knowledge of Inupiaq identity, dignity, and respect as well as to cultivate a love of lifelong learning. The school is part of the Kotzebue IRA, the tribal government serving the Inupiaq people of Qikiktagruk.

Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat is much more then a language immersion school.

“The goal is not only to produce students who can understand and speak Inupiaq, but students that know what it means to be Inupiaq and practice the Inupiaq values,” said Deputy Director Noah Naylor. “Through our Inupiaq language we teach respect for others, cooperation, hard work, and humility to name a few, so that the children will have the tools to succeed in life.”

The school uses a natural-approach method for language acquisition where teachers put the emphasis on real communication for practical purposes as opposed to language learning focusing on grammar and rules. Little English is spoken; as the teachers speak Inupiaq, the students indirectly acquire linguistic understanding through direct involvement in learning and play activities that are meaningful to them.

Most children speak English and little, if any, Inupiaq when they arrive at the school, and the immersion program is designed for this. Parents can speak with teachers in Inupiaq or English, and communication from the school to home is bilingual.

When the children graduate to public school (the big school) around second grade, it’s not long before they excel in reading and math in English, and many are on the honor roll, after having spent several years in Inupiaq immersion.

“The first thing that the big school notices about our students is that they are respectful,” said Agnik (Polly) Schaeffer, lead teacher at Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat. “Students call each other by their Inupiaq names. Self-identify is so important. It helps the children stay grounded.”

Most children at the school have Inupiaq names given to them by their grandparents, but some parents have asked the school to help them select an Inupiaq name for their child, especially families with multi-cultural backgrounds.

Elders play an important role in the school.

Some share their knowledge of Inupiaq culture by talking about and demonstrating a particular skill such as sewing; others come to tell stories. All share in the monthly potlucks where everyone comes together to enjoy good food and each other. A community-based curriculum immerses the students in monthly community activities; they take field trips to pick berries, check fishing nets, or walk along the beach, and they engage in other seasonal activities such as ice fishing.

Students learn Inupiaq language based on their exposure to Inupiaq outside of school, their developmental readiness, and classroom participation. So while many kindergarteners can speak Inupiaq, others speak little or none on their own, similar to the differences children display in learning to walk. The philosophy at Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat is that self-initiated speech in Inupiaq will emerge naturally when the child is ready, and differences in language development even out over time.

For more information about the program, visit Nikaitchuat Ilisagviat online: http://kotzebueira.org/nikaitchuat.html.
This article appeared in the May 2009 Best Beginnings May 2009 E-newsletter. Please refer to our Content Reproduction Policy if you are interested in reproducing content provided on this website.