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Language keeps culture strong
Former educator makes impassioned plea to help revitalize Inuinnaqtun

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 24, 2014

"If we keep teaching language without experiencing the life or action of the words, we will not memorize it and it will continue to get lost, but using the words in action helps to make a mental and physical memory, helping to internalize the language."

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Education Minister Paul Quassa addresses the crowd at the opening event for Uqausirmut Quviasuutiqarniq, Inuit Language Weeks, at the Astro Theatre in Iqaluit on Feb. 17. He said everyone needs to work together to create an educational system that fills the language and cultural needs of all Nunavummiut. - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

For Millie Kuliktana, this is the only way to truly revitalize the languages and cultures of the Inuit.

Kuliktana has long been an advocate for language revitalization, both as an educator and as an "elder in training." A screening of a documentary film based on her work, titled Millie's Dream: Revitalization of Inuinnaqtun, which explores why Inuit languages and traditions are being lost and what can be done about it, kicked off the two-week Uqausirmut Quviasuutiqarniq, Inuit Language Weeks, in Iqaluit on Feb. 17.

Kuliktana's language, Inuinnaqtun, is currently the most at-risk of the Inuktut languages.

"Really there's just two main communities, which is Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay, out of all the other communities in Nunavut, that have Inuinnaqtun speakers," said Tocasie Burke, manager of Inuktitut affairs with the territorial Department of Culture and Heritage. "It's not a lot of people compared to other Nunavummiut and, you know, residential school also made a huge impact on this, including culture."

Due to people moving around and intermarriages between families, Inuinnaqtun is also spoken in other Kitikmeot communities by a few residents. However, the number of native speakers remains lower than any of the Inuktitut dialects, said Burke.

It is impossible to separate the loss of a language from the loss of cultural practices, especially among Inuit whose words, phrases and songs are so closely tied to traditional activities like fishing and hunting, she said.

The standing-room-only audience at the Astro Theatre, where Millie's Dream was shown, was noticeably moved and laughed out loud as Kuliktana sat on a snowmobile and sang a traditional song in Inuinnaqtun as she pulled a fishing lure up through the ice.

Later, more than a few viewers were moved to tears as Kuliktana outlined why it is so important to her to keep fighting for her dream of a cultural centre where apprentices and masters could come together to immerse themselves in their traditions.

This dream is slowly becoming a reality in Kugluktuk, where the newly-built Ulu Centre is expected to open in March of this year. The $2.7-million complex is largely funded by BHP Billiton and will serve as an office space, art gallery and tourist centre.

While it is not exactly the centre Kuliktana describes, it will go a long way to preserve "all the wonderful things Inuit have created to survive in this climate," said Burke.

As English becomes more and more dominant among young Inuit, it becomes both more important and more difficult to help people return to their traditional roots, Kuliktana said in a statement read at the event by Naullaq Arnaquq in her absence.

The language barrier also creates a divide between elders and youth, making it even more difficult for traditional knowledge to be transferred to younger generations.

A willing learner can be taught to speak an Inuit language if they work with a speaker for a minimum of 10 hours per week, four to six months of the year for three years.

"All you have to do is leave English behind, listen, imitate and confirm your thoughts and actions with hands-on living," said Kuliktana.

The Department of Culture and Heritage has committed $1.6 million in funding for language programming in 2014/15, of which roughly $500,000 has been earmarked specifically for the Inuinnaqtun language, Simon Awa, deputy minister of Culture and Heritage announced while serving as master of ceremonies at the screening.

Inuit Language Weeks events continue through Feb. 28. The theme of this year's celebrations came from students who have taken up the call to reconnect with their culture, said Burke. The theme is: Our Language Keeps Our Culture Strong.

When there is no English translation

Kajjaarnaqtuq - as it is spelled in Roman orthography - is just one of many Inuit phrases with no direct English translation.

In an attempt to explain what it means to a tuurmiaq (stranger), Tocasie Burke, manager of Inuiktitut affairs with the territorial Department of Culture and Heritage, said it could mean anything from "I am enjoying what I'm eating/where I am," to "I am yearning to be there, to be content," to "beautiful scenery, even on a rainy day."

"But it's more than that," she said.

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