Richard Atuk and Debbie Atuk, father and daughter, are on a personal mission to revive Iñupiaq culture through language learning. Originally from Wales, Richard Atuk grew up speaking Iñupiaq until he was 7 years old, when his family moved to Nome. He was struck by the realization that some of Alaska’s Native dialects only have a few remaining speakers.
“I just could not imagine being the last speaker of your language and what that meant,” Richard Atuk said.
Through advocating for language preservation and education, Richard and Debbie Atuk hope people will be reconnected with their heritage and carry on Iñupiaq culture and language.
Richard Atuk compared being without the Iñupiaq language to orphans searching for their parents, desperate to find out where they came from.
“Our outlook on language is not so much for communication but equally to learn about the idea of who we are, why we are and why that’s important.” Richard Atuk said.
The two shared that Iñupiaq is a way of life. Within the grammar, itself there is an emphasis on respect, consensus and humility.
“Without our language we will not be able to preserve our culture wholly or understand what it means to be Iñupiaq,” Richard Atuk said.
Debbie Atuk identified ‘community-based’ versus ‘me-based’ communication as a core difference between Iñupiaq and English.
“For example, people say ‘excuse me’ in English when bumping into someone. In Iñupiaq, the response would be closer to ‘I’m sorry that I did that to you,’” she said.
Debbie shared that learning Iñupiaq is very different from learning romance languages. Because Iñupiaq contains deep cultural values and a unique structure, there are seldom direct translations.
“My father’s way of teaching is much more… You have to know how our language works and build up. You have to let everything else go,” Debbie Atuk said.
Image at top: Debbie and Richard Atuk share the significance of learning Iñupiaq. Photo by Miriam Trujillo, KNOM (2022).