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Studying the Inuit language in Igoolik, Nunavut!

Walter and Jason with Kublu, Inuktitut language instructor, in Iglook.
Walter and Jason with Kublu, Inuktitut language instructor, in Iglook.

September 30, 2014

This summer FLAS fellows Jason Young, a doctoral candidate in Geography, and Walter O’Toole, an English major and Arctic Studies minor, spent three weeks in Igoolik, Nunavut in Canada’s Arctic studying Inuktitut, the Inuit language, with Alexina Kublu, the former Language Commissioner for Nunavut.

Walter O’Toole, Creative Writing (major) and Arctic Studies (minor), FLAS Fellow in Inuktitut (the Inuit language), Summer 2014

Igloolik, an Inuit village in Nunavut, Canada, hugs a small cove on Igloolik Island like a crescent moon. It’s no more than ten rows of houses wide at its center, tapering to a single row at the edges. With its dusty dirt roads running out into the treeless Arctic tundra, it almost looks like it could be a small town in a southern desert, if one is looking with one’s back to the shore. Turn towards the shore, however, and an expanse of thick sea ice glares in white and blue hues, dominating the landscape, and placing the scene undeniably in the far north. It was on that ice that some of my most valuable lessons occurred in both in Inuit culture and Inuktitut, which I have been studying with professors Mick Mallon and Alexina Kublu since September 2013. After I received a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship from the Canadian Studies Center, I embarked to the Canadian Arctic to continue my studies in the form of an intensive language course, accompanied by one other student, Jason Young. Thanks to generosity of Alexina Kublu and her family, Jason and I got to tag along for two multi-day camping trips. We travelled across the ice four times with them: three times on top of a qamutiik (a traditional Inuit sled), and once on foot. Each one was an incredible and unique experience.

However, these were not our first times out on the ice. After just a few days in Igloolik, Jason and I decided to explore the sea ice right next to town, thinking that if we stayed close to shore, we would have no worries. Shortly after departing, we found ourselves still very close to the shore, but entirely unsure of how to get back to it. A 13-year-old Inuk came to our rescue and guided us back when his mother saw us blundering our way across the ice through her living room window.

In a way, learning the language of Inuktitut itself was like my experience with the sea ice. Jason and I traveled miles across the frozen ocean with an Inuit family, but on our own, we got stuck at about 300 yards. Likewise, it was difficult to navigate the many complex intricacies of thinking in Inuktitut prior to studying in Igloolik. Despite the excellent tutelage of Mick Mallon and Alexina Kublu, sitting in Seattle, doing lessons over Skype, does not provide an ideal context. It was the people of Igloolik that guided me into a richer and clearer understanding of Inuktitut, and I made many connections to the language from my experiences. I ate traditional foods and then learned how to describe their deliciousness and my gratitude for them. When our qamutiik broke while we were out on the ice, I helped fix it, and then I learned how to describe what I had done. I watched traditional drum dancers and listened to throat singers, and learned how to compliment them properly. There were constant conversations between native speakers surrounding me, and I tried my best to emulate their pronunciation and rhythm. Most importantly, I was given a glimpse of how the beauty of the language, the place, and the people all go hand-in-hand. As I continue my studies in Inuktitut, the possibility of returning someday to Igloolik will be a great motivation.

Jason Young, Geography (doctoral candidate), 2013-14 Arctic Research Fellow, FLAS Fellow in Inuktitut (the Inuit language) Summer 2014, Academic Year 2014-15

My fingers tightened against the sides of the sled as another jolt sent me perilously up into the air. Cold air and salty sprays of water rushed past my face, and above me, even after midnight, the summer sun continued its never-ending march around the sky. Below and around me, ice stretched from horizon to horizon, crisscrossed with enough cracks fissures to prevent me from forgetting that I was really crossing over an ocean. The above scene took place this past August in Northern Canada, as I hunkered down on a qamutiik, or traditional Inuit sled, to travel to a small island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. I had been invited on this trip by a family of Inuit, so that I could spend a few days camping on the island with them. This was just one of many unforgettable cultural experiences that I was able to participate in this summer as a result of a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship provided to me by the Canadian Studies Center at the University of Washington. This Fellowship helped to fund me to travel to Igloolik, an Inuit community in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, in order to participate in an intensive language program. In particular I was learning the North Baffin dialect of Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. While Inuktitut courses are quite rare, I had been lucky enough to become involved in a course taught by the husband-and-wife team of Alexina Kublu and Mick Mallon. It was Kublu’s family that kindly invited me and another student, Walter O’Toole, along on the camping trip described above.


Jason enjoying the sun in Iglook on ice.

I quickly found the trip to be an indispensable component of the language acquisition process, since learning Inuktitut involves far more than memorizing a list of vocabulary and grammatical rules. The language truly required me to shift how I think and communicate about the world, and being in the home of the language helped me to start to make that mental shift. I needed to see the land, to be on the ice, to eat traditional foods, and, most importantly, to interact with Inuit speakers of the language. Throughout the trip I was invited to participate in a wide range of cultural events, including multiple camping trips, community celebrations, family meals, and more. I even worked up the nerve to participate in a few rounds of ice pan hopping. This involved me jumping onto small chunks of free-floating ice, and then quickly moving onto the next chunk before the first one sunk down into the water. Although I certainly didn’t win any awards for athletic prowess, I am happy to report that I avoided any plunges into the frigid water. Each of these different experiences left indelible marks on me, both intellectually and emotionally. Of course, not all of the experiences in the Arctic were entirely positive … I also, for example, spent a fair share of time battling the mouse-sized mosquitos of the area! On a more serious note I saw first-hand the very difficult issues currently facing Inuit communities, including astronomical living costs, housing shortages, issues related to health and health care, and much more. In the long run, I hope that I can use my own privileged position within the academic world to work with Inuit communities to solve some of these problems. For now, though, I will continue working on my Inuktitut and continue feeling grateful for the incredible experiences that I had this summer!

View photos from their trip here:

Funding for FLAS Fellowships is provided by a Center allocation from International and Foreign Language Education, U.S. Department of Education. Visit our FLAS page: