On a school day in Nome, a class of second graders at Nome Elementary School gathers around Annie Conger as she begins her cultural studies lesson.
Conger is reading “Neeluk : An Eskimo Boy in the Days of the Whaling Ships.”
“Last time, they had to wake up really early to get ready for Kotzebue,” said the second-grade teacher in a recap of last week’s part of the story.
While reading, she seamlessly interjects words in the Inupiaq language as she tells the students about Neeluk’s adventures.
“The boys boots, or mukluks, were made of tan natchiq (seal) skin,” Conger read.
Conger says she grew up speaking Inupiaq at home. Her students only know English, so she’s proud to teach them the words of her ancestors.
“It’s very important because our language is dying here in the Bering Straits region,” she said. “For our kids to pick up Inupiaq as one of our languages, the kids will remember.”
It wasn’t long ago that students, like Conger’s father, were punished for speaking their Native languages at school. Inupiaq is one of three primary Native languages in Nome, along with two of the three Alaska Yupik Eskimo languages, Siberian and Central.
Conger found that the only way to keep the language alive was through her family.
“My grandfather lived with us who spoke limited English,” she said. “So with us, growing up, it was very important at home to know the language.”
Nome students not only have the chance to learn the language in class, they also get to hear it from fluent speakers as well. Every Thursday, the school hosts Lunch with an Elder. This week, 84-year-old Ester Bourdan tells the students about her life in Wales and her family’s hunting traditions.
Born in Teller in 1929, Bourdan says she didn’t learn English until she went to kindergarten. In Inupiaq, she recounts the story of how she was born, her mother traveling by dog sled to get to a midwife.
Though the students can’t understand her now, she hopes to inspire them to learn their Native language so that one day they might be able to.
“Her and her family members didn’t speak any English,” Marilyn Koezuna-Ireland translated. “They spoke solely in their Inupiaq-Eskimo language. She feels that was the way to be and it was a very good way to be.”
Inupiaq has also made its way to the Nome-Beltz Junior/Senior High School.
Marjorie Tahbone is the school’s first Inupiaq instructor.
“Let me see if I can even say it,” Tahbone told her class as she paused to study a word, doing her best to pronounce what means ‘Lets go to the basketball game.’
“Aqsriqityaqtaunukta,” she managed.
Even though Tahbone is the teacher, she’s still learning the language and knows how hard it can be to master the language’s guttural sounds.
“You have to exercise your throat muscles,” she said. “Because in the English language, we don’t use some of the sounds we use in Inupiaq. It’s such a beautiful language.”
But it’s not just about getting students to properly pronounce words, she says. It’s getting them to understand the deeper meaning behind them.
“You can’t really teach just the language. You have to teach history, the ancestry and the understandings and beliefs and philosophies with it,” Tahbone said. “Because some words don’t make any sense unless you explain the background and why we say some of the words.”
The high school class is an elective, so students here have the drive and the desire to carry on a piece of their Native culture.
“We want to bring it back so we know our history and our culture,” said freshman Katherine Scott, who also happens to be Tahbone’s cousin.
Back at the elementary school, Conger has the children string yarn through a popsicle stick to simulate the method of hanging cod. She sees how important it is to get her kids interested in Inupiaq because the fate of the language depends on it.
“I’m originally from Brevig Mission,” Conger said. “We have just six elders left who can speak our language fluently. That scares me.”
Each word the students learn brings them one step closer to reviving the language, one that’s been a part of the area for thousands of years.