Two Norton Sound leaders, Roy Agloinga and James ‘Richard’ Beneville, received this year’s Governor’s Arts and Humanities Award.
Agloinga, who received the Distinguished Service to the Humanities award in education, is originally from White Mountain, and has worked to preserve the village’s dialect. He says the award announcement came as a shock. “I was pretty startled and really, really happy,” Agloinga exclaimed.
His home village, along with Mary’s Igloo, Solomon and Teller, speak the Iġałuik dialect of Qawiaraq Inupiaq. The dialect is at risk of being lost. “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,” he explained.
Nonetheless, Agloinga is one of the last people who spent time with native speakers of Iġałuik. For three decades, he has co-authored the Qawiaraq Inupiat Dictionary alongside Luanne Harrelson, also of White Mountain, and others.
To him, preserving the language sheds light on global challenges, because Inupiaq “defines concepts and life and philosophy of living”. He said, “for Inupiat people, language provides an answer for questions that we have around the environment, around climate change, around how to treat our children, how to treat our Elder. We perfected that in our cultures and our language is the best way to communicate that. It encapsulates a lot of those values.”
So far, only 500 printed copies of the Qawiaraq Iġałuik Dictionary exist. Most were given or sold to schools. With only a few fluent speakers left, he is eager to help future generations learn their dialect.
“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,” he explained. “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.’”
He added that he hopes the award creates recognition of language preservation.
“I wanted 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 shared.
Former Mayor of Nome, Richard Beneville, was also recognized with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement in the Arts award. The honor is given posthumously.
A former Broadway actor, Beneville taught theater while running a tour company while serving as Nome’s Mayor. He also served on the board of Alaska’s tourism association. Many visitors remember his generous welcome and enthusiastic spirit.
The governor’s office cited Beneville’s work championing arts and theater in Nome, his ability to inspire artistic abilities in others and his longtime advocacy for tourism in Alaska.
As a special treat for the two recipients, renown Nome artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs was selected to create unique awards for each of this year’s recipients.
Image at top: Richard Beneville (right), former Nome mayor, was honored posthumously for his lifetime investment in the arts. He is pictured above mentoring KNOMers at a retreat for volunteer fellows in 2016. Beneville passed in mid-2020.