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Inuit language and Arctic policy

In 2018-19 five students were awarded a FLAS Fellowship in Inuktitut, including, from left, Elizabeth Wessells, Archaeology; Ginger Farrell, Interdisciplinary Studies, Applied Linguistics; Sara Laurino, School of Social Work; and Ellen Ahlness, Political Science. Elena Bell, International Studies is also a recipient.

January 24, 2019

Ellen Ahlness, political science, FLAS Fellow, Inuktitut, 2018–19

I am working toward my PhD in political science. My research looks at the role of nonstate actors in global politics. Specifically, I analyze the role of Arctic Indigenous organizations and their influence on international organizations, primarily the Arctic Council. Therefore, it is very important to me to understand Inuit values and concerns, and the study of the Inuit language assists me in this effort.

Fall quarter was my first quarter in Inuktitut. I have learned that the first necessary skill for a novice speaker is to structure sentences and thought. Inuktitut structure is far different from English, yet the more I learn, the more it makes sense to structure sentences the Inuktitut way!

I find myself completely enraptured by the structure of the Inuktitut language. Prior to being awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship, I studied Norwegian for seven years. Like other Germanic languages, Norwegian sentences are formed similarly to English, so it was easier to catch on. Even studying Tajiki was not exceptionally challenging for the same reason; while possessives and adjectives got shuffled around, a native English speaker could shift into the new rhythm with a bit of practice.

When it comes to Inuktitut, however, things are completely different. Our instructor, Mick Mallon, told us on the first day that Inuktitut is one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn, but once learned you realize how much sense the structure makes compared to English. It is often said that learning a language provides an insight into cultural values and perspectives in a way nothing else can, and the Inuktitut structure certainly illustrates this. To further these perspective insights, we have cultural lessons at the end of each class. After Mick has finished the language lesson for the day, Alexina Kublu, formerly of Nunavut Arctic College, connects the vocabulary and themes we have covered to Inuit history, tradition and livelihoods. This gives the language a context and is one of the most important parts of the lesson for me.

My PhD research focuses on the role of Indigenous organizations in the Arctic Council. This is a phenomenon never seen before – Indigenous Peoples playing a crucial role in the creation of a regional organization where their decision-making power is comparable to the member states, including the United States, Canada, and Russia! Therefore, it is very important to me to understand Inuit values, concerns, and needs, as these are the interests they champion in international organizations.

If American policymakers are to craft Arctic policy that has the support of the other circumpolar countries, they need to be aware of the states and stakeholders that play a role in the region. Additionally, with the rapid changes occurring in the Arctic, including permafrost and glacial melting, it is becoming increasingly necessary to address the consequences for human and environmental security on circumpolar populations.

Working with Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit is necessary to create sustainable policy, whether it is in the realm of cooperative research and development, sustainable extraction, flora and fauna preservation, or human health standards in the Far North. While the United States has a history of Arctic policy cooperation with Canada, it has not fully addressed the rights and values of northern Indigenous regions and peoples. It therefore becomes the charge of the next generation of policymakers and researchers to create responses to global challenges, particularly environmental challenges, that address state and Indigenous concerns. After all, no matter where we live, we are all stakeholders in the future of the Arctic.