Elders create new Iñupiat word for Dene Athabascan

There's a new word to describe Dene Athabascan peoples, thanks to Elders and youth at a language camp in western Alaska.

Old word 'wasn't meant to be friendly,' says Marjorie Tahbone, an Iñupiat woman from Nome, Alaska

Elders gathered in Qikiqtaġruk, Alaska, made a new Inupiat word to describe Dene Athabascan peoples during the Ilisaqativut language program in western Alaska (Submitted by Marjorie Tahbone.)

Iñupiat elders in Alaska have created a new word to describe Dene Athabascan peoples.

The word is Tinaaq (De-NAH-q). It replaces the current word, Itqaliq, which can be interpreted as offensive. 

The elders came up with the new word during a two-week language program, called Ilisaqativut, in northwestern Alaska. 

The old word, Itqaliq, is  "not a very nice word," said Marjorie Tahbone, an Iñupiat woman from Nome, Alaska, who took part in the language program with her husband, Dewey Putyuk Hoffman, and their newborn daughter.

The word Itqaliq is from a time when Indigenous nations were warring over lands to hunt and fish, she said.

"It can mean lice-ridden people. It can mean people with no asshole. It was definitely a term that wasn't meant to be friendly," said Thabone.

"It's kind of outdated because now we live in harmony. We unite, we collaborate, we make babies, and so it's time for a new word."

Hoffman is Koyukon Athabascan from the interior. Tahbone said that when he introduces himself using the old Iñupiaq word for Dene Athabascan people, laughter often ensues.

"Everybody would giggle ... because we all kind of know what [Itqaliq] means," she said.

Hoffman joked about wanting a better Iñupiat word to describe himself.

Elders and some youth at the language camp obliged. They gathered and "Iñupia-tized" the word "Dena," or people of the interior, said Tahbone.

"Now he could just say ... 'I am Tinaaq.' There's no giggling. There's no inside joke about what we used to call Athabascan people, and I'm happy," she said.

Language for empowerment

Tahbone shared the new word on Facebook. 

More than 200 people liked the post and many said they planned to use the word for themselves and others. 

Language is always evolving because it has to, said Tahbone. Creating new words and adapting language will empower Indigenous people to take control over their languages and strengthen their identity. 

"I have to remember that if my ancestors were alive today, they would still be constantly changing their language to best fit the situation that they're in, the environment that they're in, and the people that they're surrounded by," she said.

Making new words like Tinaaq is the same for Tahbone as replacing pejorative terms like Eskimo with Iñupiaq or Inuk.

"We're transitioning because we're in a different time and we're reclaiming our languages," she said.

"So I choose to use Iñupiaq just like we are choosing to create a new word for our friends and our family, our husbands, our wives, their cousins, all of our relations in the interior — Tinaaq."


About the Author

Avery Zingel


Avery Zingel is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political Science. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @averyzingel.