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Language and sovereignty: Speaking Indigenous sovereignty into existence



[This article was re-posted with permission from Alaska Indigenous, and was originally published on December 3, 2012.]

Recently, I was in Barrow for an Iñupiaq language systemic planning workshop. My family on my mother’s side is from Deering in Northwest Alaska, and I have only spent any significant amount of time in Kotzebue since we moved away when I was small. A lot of the time I have spent in Kotzebue has been visiting with elders and re-learning Iñupiaq.

I tend to think of the process of learning Iñupiaq as re-learning,  reclaiming or re-awakening something that was temporarily suppressed or sleeping, mainly by teachers and missionaries who until recently, violently suppressed our language and culture.

Uqavut siñiktut. Our tongues are asleep.

So it was exciting to be in Barrow and to meet many of the North Slope elders and leadership, and to speak with people in our common Iñupiaq language. The people living in the North Slope’s eight communities use some different nouns than we do (North Slope: aŋutaiyaaq – boy vs. Northwest: aŋugauraq- boy, for example). There are differences in pronunciation as well that are not large enough to impede communication.

I have attended similar events in the past in the Northwest Arctic and in Nunavut, Canada, and was reminded yet again why Indigenous language re-learning must be prioritized by Indigenous communities, and by the individuals within those communities. Other Alaska Natives, such as Lance Twitchell, have explained why this is true far more eloquently than I can.  Instead, what I would like to do here is expand on what I see as the conventional discussion of language as inseparable from culture, moving in a no less abstract but equally important direction toward language as the living expression of Indigenous sovereignty. I define ‘sovereignty’ loosely as having been achieved when Indigenous peoples have the power to create and control our own reality (political, cultural, intellectual, etc.). My points are bulleted below for clarity.

  •  Indigenous languages are the strongest common cultural denominator tying Indigenous peoples and our allies together. When you speak an Indigenous language like Iñupiaq, it really doesn’t matter much where you’re from or where you are. I am an urban Alaska Native with roots in Northwest Alaska, currently living in the Lower 48. I don’t know how to hunt, nor do I possess any on the land skills or knowledge. Yet my conversational Iñupiaq instantly establishes a common cultural bond between myself and other Iñupiaq language speakers, no matter how different we may be in other ways, and no matter how many years may be between us. I experienced this in Barrow when Rachel Riley, an elder from Anaktuuvak Pass and I, were having a conversation in Iñupiaq about her experiences growing up on the land, moving into a permanently settled community for the first time (they were nomadic), and then being forced to attend boarding school at Wrangell Institute for three years. She told me about how sad that experience was. I don’t think she would have shared this with me if I had approached her and begun our conversation in English, a foreign language – the language forced upon her and other elders of her generation by schools at places like Wrangell. In order to give you a better idea of what I mean by language being able to establish a cultural connection between people, no matter where they come from, watch Laren Thomas, a non-Native teacher working in Chevak, practice his Yup’ik with Ossie Kairaiuak:

    When we speak Indigenous languages, we are actually exercising intellectual self-determination, sovereignty, etc., and getting back to the spiritual and cultural essence of ourselves or a part of ourselves. This is liberating, because we are liberating ourselves through the process of reclaiming something that has in many cases been taken away. It is also healing, because we are finally able to speak a reality and a part of ourselves into existence that has in many cases been suppressed for generations. Language is also one of the mediums through which we participate in reality, and the medium of English is a different kind or shade of reality than the reality we participate in through the mediums of Gwich’in, Yugtun or Iñupiaq. The imposition of English through schooling was the tactic that the U.S. government used to impose the language medium through which most Alaska Native people today interpret reality, as the first and most important step on the road to assimilation into the dominating society. Sovereignty or self-determination means the right to decide, and so reasserting control of the medium through which we interpret reality from an Indigenous standpoint is an important step in this process.The marathon work of cultural and political self-determination or sovereignty is meaningless and hollow without first liberating our minds through a process of reclaiming the essence of our culture and identity. I am often frustrated by Indigenous folk who place the highest priority on achieving or protecting what they perceive to be political sovereignty as a long-term goal for their peoples, without acknowledging the need for intellectual sovereignty right now, which can be achieved relatively cheaply and easily through language reclamation. I see how the two can go hand in hand, with political sovereignty possibly entailing tribal self-determination over schooling and other institutions. But in light of the fact that these institutions are more often than not (as Lance points out in the piece I linked to above) imposed, colonial models or structures anyway, it seems to me that intellectual sovereignty through language reclamation should be prioritized above all.

    • Having a distinct language is one of the definitions of nationhood, and languages cannot be taken away. Languages can potentially be beaten out of our people, as some tragically have, but language isn’t a kind of goods, or a cash dependent government structure tied to policy or funding. Language is a spiritual and intellectual essence, and it can permanently bond people together no matter where they are in the world. Some elders in Barrow noted hearing Filipino parents in Barrow stores speaking to their children in Tagalog. The same can apply to Iñupiat with small children living in Anchorage or Fairbanks.
    • Our languages are reflective of the lands and environments from which they emerge, and the type of cultures that use them. This doesn’t mean they are not adaptable or static, but that by speaking our languages we are speaking our connection to our lands, and speaking and experiencing our relationship to where we come from no matter where we may be. To give you an idea of an Indigenous language being used in a contemporary setting, please take a look at the Qanorooq news program from Greenland:

When we think about Indigenous communities – or at least groups of people or entities within those communities – engaged in the struggle for self-determination and sovereignty, there is often an emphasis on gaining or re-gaining control over the institutions (schools, economies, religious practices, tribal, local or regional governments, etc.) that help make it possible for Indigenous communities and peoples to create their own reality and self-determine their own futures. I have shown that the pragmatic, first step in this struggle must be a reassertion of control over our own minds through language. This doesn’t have to come at the expense of the opportunities that are associated with English, like college, graduate training or employment, but just the opposite.

The actual activity of learning a language is complicated, and is a separate topic from this one, as are the latent power dynamics imbedded within languages and the choices we make about language use. I will further explore these topics in later posts.


  1. As a quarter Inupiaq woman (and part Irish), most people, Native or not, assume I’m Caucasian with possibly Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or Hispanic mixed in. It is hurtful that there was a generation break where my Native heritage was displaced. Or to be told I “can pass for being white”, or how often ugly racist things are said to me because the person was doubly ignorant that I belong to the group they’re making fun of AND that racism in any form bothers me. Especially if they don’t realize they are saying something extremely ugly. That makes me sad beyond words that there is a pervasive thought that racism against certain groups is OK. It all made me feel that there is something very large missing. Alcohol and abuse plagued my family, so there was a further loss as my mother lost contact with her Native family, starting with her racist white father being in the army, so they constantly moved and lived Outside. She is so ashamed at being Native that she identifies herself as Caucasian. Years ago I took 10 credits of Inupiaq through UAF’s ANLC and comparative Eskimo Aleut Linguistics, but have not kept up with it in part because it is hard to find other speakers. It is so true that the languages we use help shape the way we think. I have also taken French, can read a little Spanish and Portuguese and cannot think how many times a concept does not directly translate. Learning Inupiaq helped me specifically quantify what the vague feeling of loss was. Not just language, but: foods how to find them or prepare them, how to sew skins, how to make snow shoes and dogsleds, how to live without plastic, how to live without artifice, how to be grateful for everything, everybody and every moment. I realized I’d lost how to make and how to be before I knew they existed. I find it interesting that most indigenous people’s term for themselves means “Real” or “Original Person”. And I wonder if I am real, caught between worlds, not knowing enough about either of my main heritages, recognizing I am a slave to first world amenities which still pale in comparison to what was lost.

  2. Rather, started with a mother who had gone to boarding school to start the assimilation, who then married a racist Caucasian man.

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