More than 90 percent of the people in the Northwest Arctic Borough are Iñupiaq Eskimo, yet a mere 14 percent are fluent in Iñupiaq. And 92 percent of the fluent speakers are older than 65, according to a 2005 survey.
Those numbers spurred the Aqqaluk Trust to form the Iñupiaq Language Commission to revitalize the language. A central component of that effort is “language nests,” an immersion-based approach to revitalizing traditional languages.
Language nests originated in New Zealand in the early 1980s as part of the Maori language revival. The approach has been replicated in Hawaii and sparked interest among Indian tribes in the Lower 48, as well.
“The idea is fairly simple in concept,” explains Tracey Schaeffer of Ilisaaq: A Best Beginnings Partnership. “You immerse young children in the language you want them to learn at the age they’re most receptive to learning languages.”
Schaeffer and her Ilisaaq partners (the Aqqaluk Trust and NANA Regional Corporation) are laying the groundwork for language nest playgroups in all 10 villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough. The challenges are formidable, in part because most of the villages have little in the way of organized programs for infants and young children.
“At the Early Learning and Family Program, we occasionally run village playgroups, and we have two village-based playgroups. We want to build on that and continue,” Schaeffer said. Each requires volunteers, an appropriate and baby-friendly place to meet, and if possible, a fluent Iñupiaq speaker.
“Isolation can be a problem. People just don’t get together as much as they used to,” Schaeffer observes. “They watch more TV and there’s not as much sharing and storytelling and other things that people used to do.”
Ilisaaq’s goal is to have a language nest in every village providing developmentally stimulating activities for children. The really long range hope is for each village to have a full-time immersion child care center. But it won’t happen all at once.
“Initially, it’s much more about getting people together to support each other and use traditional knowledge. We have a lot of great parents and people who would be great parents if only they felt more confident,” Schaeffer said.
Parents’ lack of confidence in their own parenting skills should be no surprise, considering the messages drummed into the Iñupiaq since Westerners first arrived. One of the barriers to language nests is that the Iñupiaq language was actively discouraged, and today’s elders well remember being punished for speaking their language.
“People still feel fairly disenfranchised when it comes to their children because of the way the system dealt with parents and education,” Schaeffer said. “That’s a lot to overcome, and it will take time.”
Schaeffer is optimistic that playgroups will start in the fall in four of the 10 villages. Each playgroup will have an Iñupiaq presence, even if they don’t have fluent Iñupiaq speakers lined up right away.
Ilisaaq partnership provides kits that include a CD player and CDs composed mostly of Iñupiaq songs. Early learning professionals will advise the playgroup volunteers about play activities that are developmentally stimulating.
“The first step is to get people interested in the playgroups. Even strong Iñupiaq speakers are sometimes shy or reluctant to talk with the kids. It takes them a while to warm up to the idea,” Schaeffer said. “One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is to plow ahead. You could plan forever but if you have enough to move, don’t wait. Just start.”