My language, my heart
Inuinnaqtun could be gone within two generations — four Inuit women are doing something about it
Is it possible to save a dying language?
Inuinnaqtun could be gone in just two generations.
The language (pronounced ee-NOO-ee-NAHK-toon) is traditionally spoken in three Inuit communities in the Western Arctic: Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk and Ulukhaktok.
Each community has become a battleground to revive the language, especially among young people.
Like other Indigenous languages, usage of Inuinnaqtun has seen a steep decline due to colonization and residential schools, where many children were forced to abandon their traditional languages and speak English.
It’s not clear how many Inuinnaqtun speakers are left.
Only 390 people in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories declared Inuinnaqtun their mother tongue in the 2011 census.
But four determined Inuit women are fighting to revive it — one voice at a time.
From Monday to Friday, Lorraine Bolt is immersed in her ancestors’ language.
She translates documents from English to Inuinnaqtun.
But that’s where it ends.
“When I go out there into the community, there’s nobody to speak to my age," says the 48-year-old, a trained interpreter/translator in Kugluktuk.
Kugluktuk, which means the place of moving water, is the westernmost community in Nunavut and lies at the mouth of the Coppermine River.
Nearly 1,500 people live there; most are Inuit.
“I grew up hearing and trying to speak [Inuinnaqtun] with my parents as a tiny girl,” recalls Bolt. “But between me and my friends, we just spoke English.”
Bolt’s journey to reclaim her language began more than two decades ago. In her 20s, Bolt's aging parents began living at a remote outpost camp.
Her only way to communicate with them was by CB radio.
“I could understand them but I couldn't talk with them,” says Bolt. “I made myself speak my language so they could understand me."
With each conversation her confidence grew, and in 2014, Bolt became an interpreter/translator for the Government of Nunavut.
Even so, Bolt admits she mostly speaks English with her children and grandchildren. But she’s focused on getting her grandchildren interested in Inuinnaqtun.
“Some words they can say, like quana [thanks] and grace before supper,” says Bolt, smiling.
"I don't want it to die. It's who I am. My language.”
For Julia Ogina, being an Inuinnaqtun speaker isn’t black or white.
“So many people today have that attitude, ‘Because I don’t speak it, I don’t have the language,’” says Ogina, sitting in her office at the Kitikmeot Inuit Association in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
As the programs coordinator for elders, language and culture, she’s determined to prove those people wrong.
"What we are hearing is our language is dying. You can equally say our culture is dying,” says Ogina.
“For those that have the language, even if it’s small, we need to start using it. We need to begin with what we have.”
Originally from Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., the 55-year-old listens to drum songs on her laptop at work. The beats bring her back to the days when Inuinnaqtun thrived.
"I was born at a time when [the] language was used all around us," says Ogina, who spent much of her childhood on the land with her parents, living in town for only part of the year.
"Our people were very nomadic. People lived amongst their resources.”
In the 1960s, Ogina witnessed a language shift.
“We went from living that cycle of life to moving into communities,” she says. “At some point, our families were approached and told our life is going to change."
Ogina says people learned English so they could get jobs. Children were further thrust into an English-dominated world at residential school.
"That changed the attitude and behaviour of our people. Our value system changed.”
The Kitikmeot Inuit Association is working on a plan toward getting communities in the region mostly bilingual in two generations, or about 40 years.
Ogina admits the plan is ambitious, but says they have to try. “It’s much bigger than what we are ready for.”
It's now at a point where there are more people signing up for language programs than there are instructors, or funding.
“So we know that there’s hope for our language,” Ogina says.
Inuinnaqtun programming on community radio and television has also grown and drum-making workshops in the language have been popular in Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk.
Ogina says even people who may not consider themselves speakers have the language within them.
“Their ears have been exposed to it, their eyes have been exposed to it. Their emotion has been exposed.”
Emily Angulalik’s eyes light up as the Inuinnaqtun words for “Can I help you?” roll from her lips.
Four students watch, listen and softly repeat.
When students speak a new word, “it’s just like a light bulb goes off," Angulalik says.
The small classroom in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, is a short walk from the Arctic Ocean. The students are among 21 Inuit working toward a certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization from the University of Victoria, which has a partnership with Nunavut Arctic College.
“There are those that are still not confident in using the language,” says Angulalik. “But definitely it’s instilled in themselves. We just need practice!”
So far, three students have graduated from the program since it was introduced in 2015.
The course looks at how Indigenous languages have been lost and the effect that has had on communities and culture.
But it’s also practical — by the end, students should be able to hold simple conversations.
The Kitikmeot Inuit Association, which represents more than 5,000 Inuit, found even adults who are fluent in Inuinnaqtun mostly speak English at home. It also found most children in the Kitikmeot region speak English.
“One of my dreams for Cambridge Bay is seeing a youth fully conversing with an elder,” says Angulalik.
“I know it will happen. It can happen.”
An elder gives a lesson on sewing palm-sized kamiks — traditional sealskin or caribou skin boots — all in Inuinnaqtun.
This, too, is language revitalization in action.
Sarah Jancke and the other students note her stitchwork and her words.
“Over the years it’s been a journey as a young Inuk trying to figure out what it means for us to relearn and keep our Inuit languages alive,” says Jancke, who grew up speaking English in Cambridge Bay.
Sewing with an elder is one way for people to practise the language.
It was while attending Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a college program in Ottawa that teaches Inuit history, politics and traditional skills, that Jancke learned more about how the language was lost.
“Learning about colonization, impacts on cultures, I really learned the bigger picture,” Jancke says.
“It helped me understand how intentional it was and think deeper as to what we’re struggling with, ultimately giving strength to the work we have to do.”
She says what she learned gave her the confidence to take classes in language revitalization in Cambridge Bay.
As a former programs coordinator for women and youth with the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, Jancke has helped produce a documentary on Inuinnaqtun and host popular traditional knowledge camps.
“We’ve shifted from when I was a youth, 10 years ago. We couldn’t even talk about wanting to learn the language,” Jancke says.
“Youth today can say they want to learn the language. Proudly be Inuk.”
Is it possible to save a dying language?
“Inuinnaqtun is in a crucial stage,” she says. “Educating people who are ready will help create that wave of change.”
Story editing by Katherine Barton
Videos/Photos by Kate Kyle
Graphics by Earl Cabuhat
Packaging by Priscilla Hwang