A Very Important Task: Dr. Edna MacLean and Rosetta Stone Help Preserve the Iñupiaq Language

edna e1311098628661Rosetta Stone Iñupiaq (North Slope) Levels 1–3 are scheduled for release later this year. For two years, the tireless staff of the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program have been working with native speakers in the Alaska North Slope to prepare the courses. And “tireless” barely begins to describe Dr. Edna MacLean, the project’s language expert, who is president emeritus of Ilisaġvik College, in her hometown of Barrow, Alaska. On a recent afternoon, MacLean took a break from completing the Iñupiaq dictionary and editing a collection of traditional Iñupiaq narratives to have a voice chat with Danny Hieber and me. We asked about her early language-learning experiences and about her life’s work in language preservation. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Which language did you learn first? Until I was about four years old, both my mother and my father spoke Iñupiaq, but my mother could speak English. So [my siblings and I] became bilingual. My mother made sure that we understood English because she knew what was coming in school—that we would be forced to speak in English. So I was ready for kindergarten, and my teacher was my aunt, so that helped. There was a policy by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior to force us to speak only English in the classroom, and that brought on a lot of hardship for us, for our classmates who were physically punished for saying even one word in Iñupiaq. It was a very tough time in elementary school until you learned English. And the ironic part of it was that while we were being punished for speaking Iñupiaq in our schools, our parents were learning to read and write in Iñupiaq—right next door in the Presbyterian church!

Did the school policy make it difficult to stay fluent in Iñupiaq? [I went to] one of the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] schools called the Barrow Day School, but it was from kindergarten to eighth grade. And then, from Barrow we were then shipped out to Sitka, which is in southeastern Alaska, and [we] spent the whole year there in a boarding school. That’s a long time to be away from home, but I’d come home during the summers and continue communicating with my father in Iñupiaq. We’d be back in the community and start participating in the hunting and camping. Our dad’s refusal to speak English made us use our Iñupiaq again, right away, in my family. In other families probably, as well. So, the language was not totally lost, but we were told that we were speaking an immature version of the language. So, a disconnect had happened with the communities. We were quickly taken back into the community at that point. But those of us who left again further lost the opportunity to continue learning the language, and I did not get back to that situation until I came back in 1970.

How did you get started in language preservation? Well, it began when I first started teaching Iñupiaq at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, way back in 1972, I believe. And I helped Dr. [Michael] Krauss and others develop the Iñupiaq baccalaureate degree program. That was fun to do because I was learning how to read and write in my own language. So, when I became literate in Iñupiaq, it opened the door for me to do research and take a very good, close look at the grammar of Iñupiaq. I began writing the grammar that I used for teaching Iñupiaq at the university, and also for the dictionary that I’m concluding this year.

Once I became literate in Iñupiaq, I immersed myself in the language by listening to tapes of Iñupiaq elders telling legends and life experience stories.  My uncle, Lee Suvlu, managed a native store in Barrow for many years. Elders from the community would come in, and they would sit around and tell stories in the store. He and his wife, Mary taped them. When I came back to Barrow after attending school, one of my cousins gave me his tapes to work with. Lee and Mary Suvlu had taped people from our community who were excellent speakers of Iñupiaq and good storytellers, so I had a rich collection of tapes to listen to. Now the North Slope Borough’s task is to collect tapes and archive them and put them into a more permanent format.

What advice would you give other preservation programs? I would urge everyone to become literate in your own [heritage] language. That opens up a lot of doors for you in terms of knowing more about yourself and about your culture. It has been an exciting journey for me as I’ve come to understand more beliefs and traditions of the Iñupiaq people, and then [I can] compare them with what I know within the Western culture.

I commend the North Slope Borough and the institutions for focusing on Iñupiaq, and over the years they’ve also focused on dancing and singing and art. The environment is changing so fast for the Iñupiaq people in terms of the snow and the ice, and the plight of the animals we depend on is so precarious right now in terms of global warming. And it’s bound to affect hunting and camping activities that we have relied on so heavily for formation of a healthy Iñupiaq identity. But the way that [these organizations] have focused on building up the language, the music, the dancing, and the stories—if that is reinforced, I know it will provide some portion of the loss of activities that we will incur with climate change. We’ll be depending more on the language, the music, the art, and the dancing for creation of a healthy Iñupiaq identity.

And I can see where Rosetta Stone will play a crucial role in creating a learning environment for Iñupiaq in the school. But, coupled with that, the parents need to advocate for learning activities that are held within the community and with fluent speakers so that the Rosetta Stone program is augmented by those kinds of activities.

How do you envision the community using Rosetta Stone? I would like to see the Iñupiaq History, Language, and Culture Commission make [the software] available in various public places—maybe the post office or at the search-and-rescue station or at the library—as well as make sure that every household in Barrow has [their own copy of Rosetta Stone Iñupiaq].  And also, I’d like to ensure that the school district has incorporated the product into its Iñupiaq curriculum.

I’d say that the work that Rosetta Stone is doing in terms of [revitalization] of indigenous languages and providing a product where those who want to learn a language can do so—I think that is a very important task.

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