Governor’s Arts and Humanities Award recipient preserving Inupiaq dialect

Photo used with permission from Rasmuson Foundation. (2018)

Roy Agloinga was a recipient of a Governor’s Arts and Humanities award last week for his work in education. But for decades, Agloinga has been preserving his region’s dialect of Inupiaq by recording and compiling phrases into an Inupiat Dictionary.

When Agloinga received the Governor’s Arts and Humanities Distinguished Service award in education for his work in language preservation, he said he was shocked.

“I was pretty startled and really really happy,” exclaimed Agloinga. “Not only for myself, but because there is so much recognition around language preservation that needs to happen. There’s so many good people in the state that are doing this kind of work, and I wanted to have a little chance to recognize our Elders from White Mountain, Solomon, Council and Mary’s Igloo who really contributed a lot to the language preservation work that we’re doing.”

Agloinga is originally from White Mountain, a community that shares a dialect of Qawairaq Inupiaq with nearby communities like Mary’s Igloo, Solomon and Teller. His dialect is at risk of dying off.

“There are some people who, I think, can speak the dialect. But the original speakers, I think there are only three left. And I’m still a learner,” explained Agloinga.

Agloinga is one of the last people to spend time with native speakers of Igaluik. So over the last 30 years, he has worked alongside Luanne Harrelson and others to co-author the Qawiaraq Iġałuik Inupiat Dictionary.

Inupiaq speakers gather for a language summit in Kotzebue in 2019. Photo from KNOM’s Katie Kazmierski, 2019.

This is vital work, as Agloinga feels language is at the center of the Inupiat culture.

“How they define concepts and life and philosophy of living. For Inupiat people that provides an answer for questions that we have around the environment, around climate change, around how to treat our children, how to treat our Elders,” said Agloinga. “We perfected that in our cultures and our language is the best way to communicate that and it (the Inupiaq language) encapsulates a lot of those values.”

There are currently 500 published copies of the Qawiaraq Igaluik Dictionary in the world; most were given or sold to schools, according to Agloinga. And since there are only a few fluent speakers of Igaluik Inupiaq left, Agloinga hopes to publish more materials this spring.

“Luanne and I are working on a new version of the dictionary. The current is only English to Inupiat. The new version will also have Inupiat to English,” said Agloinga. “We have some corrections and other items that we need to include in the new version, so we are working on that new revision now.”

Although the Governor’s Award is not a monetary one, Agloinga hopes to use the boost in recognition of language preservation efforts to move forward. His main motivation for continuing this work of preserving a specific dialect of Inupiaq, is for future generations.

“We did a very informal survey of students, it was very very informal. But everyone that we talked to said that they wanted to learn their language. And these were high school students,” explained Agloinga. “And we started asking questions amongst other students because we had students coming up to us and saying, ‘We want to learn our language. That’s one of the most important things to us.’”

Image at top: Roy Agloinga of White Mountain. Photo used with permission from Rasmuson Foundation. (2018)