Our name for ourselves is Iñupiat (“real people”). The root of the word is inuk (“a person, a human being”). I am an Iñupiaq of the NANA (Northwest Arctic Native Association) region, which lies south of the North Slope. It is a varied environment, with forests, tundra, canyons, mountains, wide valleys, sand dunes, rocky beaches, and sandy beaches. Some of its people live on the coast of Kotzebue Sound; some along the river systems. All speak Iñupiaq, with varying dialects that reveal one’s place of origin.
The Elders of the coastal region view Kotzebue Sound as their food-storage area. From it they harvest beluga whales, bearded seals, spotted seals, and walrus—not to mention salmon, humpies (pink salmon), trout, white fish, sheefish, herring, smelts, tomcod, flounder, and halibut in season. In the fall, when heavy storms begin to move in before freeze-up, they harvest the blue mussels along the beach and catch sea ribbons in nets.
The education system almost totally destroyed our traditional culture. Because our parents were punished in school for speaking Iñupiaq, they tried to make school easier for us by speaking only English to us. In this way they inadvertently became an extension of the BIA teachers who wanted to make us assimilate into industrial society.
Since then, however, we have developed an Iñupiaq language curriculum and are teaching it in school. But to be successful, this effort must have the support of Iñupiaq speakers at home. Few parents speak the language now; for some students, Iñupiaq has become a secret language that their parents can’s understand.
Nora and Delbert Rexford's children Charles Burton, Qinugan Nayusian, and Barbara Elizabeth wear fancy fur parkas, Barrow.
Photo by Larry McNeil, National Museum of the American Indian, P26511.
Our region in much like other rural areas of Alaska. We have worked hard to get decent housing, water, sewers, telecommunications, health services, education, and job opportunities for our villages. We have developed a world-class mine in partnership with Canadians, but with metal prices very low we don’t know how long the mine will stay open. We still need to develop activities for youth, to keep them from the drug and alcohol culture. We also want to instill in them our traditional values, our hunting skills, our survival techniques, and to ground them in their identity as Iñupiaq people.
Whatever happens, we are very much concerned that our people continue to provide for their families through subsistence hunting, fishing, and plant-gathering. There is not enough local industry to replace our subsistence activities. That is how our forefathers lived; it is the way we live.
was a Kotzebue Elder who directed Iñupiaq curriculum development for the Northwest Arctic School District in Kotzebue. She passed away on October 16, 2003.
This article was adapted from Crossroads Alaska: Native Cultures of Alaska and Siberia, edited by Valérie Chaussonnet (Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution), published in 1995.