With Few Fluent Speakers Left, Young People are Teaching Inupiaq as they Learn It

Columnist, Alaska Dispatch News

January 16, 2016 – The young teachers sparkle with energy in the classroom, but they also feel fear, guilt and disapproval as they teach the ancient Native language of Inupiaq to students on Alaska’s North Slope. Because they aren’t fluent themselves.

Teachers who spoke Inupiaq as a first language entered the classroom in the 1980s and now most have retired. With hardly any fluent speakers left under 50 years old, the North Slope Borough School District started hiring young teachers who were learning the language themselves.

“In my estimation, these are the bravest, most courageous people on Earth,” said Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, the district’s director of Inupiaq education. “With our first learner-teacher, the feedback we got from the community instantly was, ‘What are you doing hiring a non-speaker in the classroom to teach the language?’”

Sikkattuaq Jamie Harcharek, 29, Pausauraq’s daughter-in-law, grew up in Anchorage and attended West High, among other schools. Her grandmother planted the seed of her language and culture.

“Besides my parents, she helped raise me,” she said. “Hearing her speak Inupiaq to her friends and to family, it kind of made me wonder why she never spoke (it) to us. And when I got to the age to where I was actually able to ask her those kinds of questions, she told me stories about when she was younger. She didn’t want to teach her children Inupiaq because she was punished for speaking Inupiaq, both emotionally and physically.

“After she passed away, I really wanted to know that side of the family a lot more, and to know where we come from,” Harcharek said. “I took Spanish in high school, and I was wondering, ‘Why in the heck am I learning this?' … It got me thinking I need to dig deeper into my roots.”

She began teaching at Fred Ipalook Elementary School in Barrow last school year. Now she wants a career teaching Inupiaq language and culture. She would like to teach a language immersion class, with no English spoken. But that’s a long way off, as she still needs to get her language skills up to the speed of her thought.

READ FULL ARTICLE: Alaska Dispatch News,. “With Few Fluent Speakers Left, Young People Are Teaching Inupiaq As They Learn It“. N. p., 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.

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