Edna MacLean heard a discouraging question early in her decades–long quest to create an Iñupiaq–to–English dictionary.
“My dad was the one who told me: ‘Don’t you think all you’re doing is for naught?’” MacLean recalled.
MacLean said she now understands that her father’s question came straight from his traditional upbringing as an Iñupiaq man on Alaska’s North Slope.
“Taunting was one of the ways of child development, of instilling in your child the urge to succeed and go on ahead. You rose to the challenge if you had the strength to do so,” she said.
As a young woman in the early 1970s, though, she didn’t take such a detached view of her dad’s comment.
“He got me angry, so I just kept on going.”
The anger turned to joy as she delved into the language and found herself on a journey of discovery. The joy sustained two intense periods of work — separated by a 20–year detour — that culminated in the publication of the Iñupiatun Uqaluit Taniktun Sivuniŋit/Iñupiaq to English Dictionary in September 2014.
MacLean and others see the dictionary as an essential tool in saving the North Slope’s Iñupiaq language and promoting literacy in it. With just a few thousand speakers remaining, the dictionary arrives at a critical time, yet it never would have been finished were it not for MacLean’s persistence in pulling together her knowledge and that of many others.
MacLean began her career at UAF as an Iñupiaq instructor in 1972 and then moved up to associate professor, all the while working on the dictionary. But in 1987 she took a position in the Alaska Department of Education. Then she earned a doctorate in Iñupiaq folklore from Stanford University. For the next decade, she served as president of Iḷisaġvik College in Barrow.
With just a few thousand speakers remaining, the dictionary arrives at a critical time.
She didn’t return to the dictionary project until 2006, first under a university president’s professorship created specifically to allow her to finish the work and then as an independent consultant on a federal grant.
To complete the dictionary, she put in 12–hour days until finishing the project in 2014.
In the final few years, MacLean worked on the second floor of the Anchorage house that she and her husband, Steve, bought in 2011. (He retired in 1997 from a career as a UAF biology professor.)
“I drove him crazy,” she said with a laugh.
The third floor, besides having a nice view of the trees along a creek, offered plenty of square footage for documents.
“I just took up all that space,” she said.
The dictionary, published by the University of Alaska Press, reflects the voluminous source material. It contains more than 19,000 entries across 988 pages.
The press director at the time, Joan Braddock ’77, ’83, ’89, said the dictionary had to be printed on a slightly thinner paper than was ideal, just to fit the vast work into one volume. It still tips the scale at 5 pounds, 5 ounces.
The dictionary does far more than define North Slope Iñupiaq words in English, though. It dissects the intricacies of Iñupiaq grammar and of the unique culture reflected in word meanings.
“It ranks with the very best dictionaries of North American languages, and, in some ways, although she gives credit to a lot people, is more the work of one person,” said Michael Krauss, UAF professor emeritus. He founded the Alaska Native Language Center in 1972 and worked for decades with MacLean. “There are other dictionaries done by Native speakers, but none nearly comparable in sophistication.”
MacLean began collecting knowledge for her dictionary long before she knew she was doing so.
MacLean’s father, Joseph Ahgeak, did not personally favor speaking English. In fact, he posed his challenging question to his daughter in Iñupiaq, the only language he would use.
Ahgeak had dropped out of school at the third–grade level, probably because he had been punished for speaking Iñupiaq, his daughter said.
“He said ‘English is not my language. I’m going to speak my own language,’” she said.
So when she persevered in the dictionary project as a young UAF professor, he joined her effort wholeheartedly, despite what seemed to be his initial skepticism.
“He would answer any question I had. He did not hesitate,” she said.
MacLean’s parents, both of whom have passed away, were among her most important sources of Iñupiaq words and concepts.
Her mother, Maria, was the daughter of the famed trader Charles Brower, a white man who came to the North Slope in 1885, and his wife, Asianggataq, an ardent hunter and trapper. Another family, whose members spoke only Iñupiaq, raised Maria until she was 7 years old. When she returned to the Brower household, she learned English from her father.
“She obeyed the school district and spoke English to us, and my father spoke Iñupiaq to us, so it was a bilingual environment,” MacLean said of her own upbringing.
She found that environment extended to the Wrangell Institute and Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Southeast Alaska, where the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs sent many Alaska Native children of her generation. She arrived at the Wrangell Institute in 1957 and finished at Mt. Edgecumbe in 1963.
“For some of us from larger villages like Barrow, we went in cohorts of 100,” she said. “And we had each other for support. We could speak Iñupiaq with each other, but not in the classroom.”
After high school, MacLean enrolled at UAF. During Christmas break in 1964, she traveled to Barrow, where she met her future husband. He was working at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. During the second half of the 1960s, the couple earned degrees at Lower 48 universities before returning to Fairbanks in 1971.
“One could tell it was going to be the last generation.”
Krauss happened to be in need of an Iñupiaq instructor.
“I told him I couldn’t do it because I had a little child,” MacLean said. “He called me again after some time, and, when I started to decline again, he said ‘It’s your duty.’ I think it was that statement that made me curious. Who was this guy? So I went to see him,” she said.
Krauss offered to teach her how to read and write in Iñupiaq. “I thought, ‘Ah, that sounds interesting,’” she said.
MacLean started working on word lists, then became an instructor.
“As I got into it, I became fascinated with the structure of the language and spent hours and hours, maybe sometimes until 4 o’clock in the morning, doing research at home before I would teach the next day,” she recalled.
The classroom turned into a language lab. She would stand at the blackboard and write while she and her students puzzled through the words and grammar.
The moments of discovery were exhilarating.
“So we were trying to figure out why a vowel, with what is called a weak ‘i’ and a strong ‘i,’ behaved differently, and how it affected the postbase, or suffix, that was following and the configuration of the consonants,” she said of the task before the class on one memorable day. “And then it clicked, and I remember saying a swear word.”
She stood facing the blackboard, heard the students inhale in surprise and felt her face redden. She knew two of the students were ministers, one a Jesuit who planned to go to King Island in the Bering Sea and another a Baptist bound for missionary work in Greenland.
“And I turned around and they started laughing, and the preachers were laughing as well, so it was OK.”
Krauss smiled when he recalled those early days.
“It was my great privilege to be in a key position here and teaching how to write, in their own language, what turned out to be, historically speaking, with the exception of Central Yup’ik, the last generation of Native speakers,” he said. “One could tell it was going to be the last generation. There were students of college age who spoke Iñupiaq, but there were no small children. It was a tragically ideal historical period to have that privilege.”
Chorus of voices
While MacLean’s name is on the dictionary, it also is the product of many people and earlier, smaller dictionaries developed by other scholars and missionaries.
She began work on the earliest version at the request of her students at UAF. “After I taught maybe two or three years, the students said they needed some kind of little dictionary because the Webster–Zibell dictionary wasn’t enough,” she said.
That 2,000–word list, by Donald Webster and Wilfried Zibell ’13, had been published in 1970 by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a project associated with Wycliffe Bible Translators.
“That was the first dictionary we started working off,” Krauss said. With Krauss’ guidance, MacLean, her students and others at the Alaska Native Language Center began collecting more words wherever they could find them.
Larry Kaplan, today the center’s director, was one of those collectors.
Kaplan had started studying Iñupiaq as a master’s student in California with Edith Rowray, who came from Barrow. Arriving in Alaska in 1974, he joined the effort to document the language.
“I worked with people who were born in the 19th century, and they were very fluent speakers,” he said. “They barely spoke English, or didn’t, in some cases, and they were very rooted in Iñupiaq language and culture.
“The elders knew so many synonyms. Some of the younger people who spoke fluently would often know only one word for something,” he said. “When I spoke with old people, with their very rich language, they had a half–dozen synonyms for the same concept, so it was a real eye–opener for me.”
At UAF, Iñupiaq speakers James Nageak ’73 and Leona Okakok also helped collect words. Okakok and Kaplan interviewed elderly speakers such as Arctic John Etalook, Edith Tegoseak and Gene Numnik, all of whom were living in Fairbanks.
Krauss said historical documents were invaluable sources as ANLC interviewed speakers. Interviewers used words they found in the documents to elicit correct pronunciations and definitions from North Slope Iñupiaq speakers. Among the documents was a well–known 1927 dictionary of the Greenlandic dialect, but they found other, more obscure sources.
“For example, there’s a set of file slips at the Smithsonian by a missionary named Spriggs from 1905, just hand–written slips, with maybe 5,000 words, poorly transcribed,” Krauss said.
The new dictionary is confined to the North Slope dialect, but, in developing it, MacLean and others compared words with all the closely related Inuit languages from Western Alaska to Greenland.
“If it’s not in this dictionary, we know that the North Slope dialect doesn’t have it, because we’ve checked,” Krauss said.
The definitive Iñupiaq dictionary needed to be printed
In 1981, the ANLC and the Iñupiat Language Commission of the North Slope Borough published a preliminary Iñupiaq dictionary compiled by MacLean. It had about 3,000 entries. MacLean saw much more to do, so she continued to work on various features, but it remained incomplete when she left UAF in 1987.
“Edna fiercely concentrates on the job at hand,” Krauss said. “I never saw anybody so focused.” For a time, that was frustrating. “You couldn’t talk to her at all [concerning the dictionary] for about 20 years because she had other tasks to do,” he said.
When MacLean came back to the project in 2006, all the documentation from the 1970s and 1980s was still available. She not only used that material but also once again turned to numerous Iñupiaq speakers living across the state for help.
To support MacLean’s work, Kaplan secured two years of funding for a president’s professorship from the statewide university system. Then, in 2007, Krauss obtained a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant, part of which paid for MacLean’s efforts through completion of the dictionary.
Disagreements about the specifics of the grant funding, however, kept the project independent of the ANLC, which has produced and printed several other dictionaries of Alaska Native languages. So the UA Press undertook the final editing and printing of the dictionary.
Our mission is to serve the state, and if this couldn’t be published somewhere else, then we needed to take it on.”
“I think we all bought into the argument that the definitive Iñupiaq dictionary needed to be printed,” said Braddock, the press director. “Our mission is to serve the state, and if this couldn’t be published somewhere else, then we needed to take it on.”
However, finding money to cover the cost of the Iñupiaq dictionary was difficult, Braddock said.
Eventually, the North Slope Borough gave the press $65,000 to produce about 1,000 copies of the dictionary. Under the arrangement, the borough’s school district received 300 copies, Braddock said.
The borough’s money not only paid for the printing but also helped hire an experienced editor, Tom Alton ’74, ’98, to prepare the document. Alton had just retired from ANLC and was, in Braddock’s words, “the perfect person.”
The main section of the dictionary, excluding an index and several topical appendices, contains between 14,000 and 15,000 North Slope Iñupiaq words, Krauss said. That matches, in size, Knut Bergsland’s exceptional dictionary of the Aleut language, published by ANLC in 1994, he said.
“So it comes very close to — well, there’s no such thing as a complete dictionary, of course — but it comes as close as possible to unabridged full coverage of that dialect,” Krauss said.
MacLean also finished a version for the web in 2011.
Guide for a new generation
“You can get a book to teach you almost anything,” Charles Brower once said, according to a posthumous profile, “King of the Arctic,” published by the Alaska Sportsman magazine in 1959. The trader, MacLean’s grandfather, quit school in New Jersey at 14 but was famous for his intellectual curiosity. He spoke Iñupiaq so well that a person whose back was turned to him wouldn’t know he was a white man, according to his daughter, as told in Margaret Blackmun’s 1989 biography, “Sadie Brower Neakok: An Iñupiaq Woman.”
Charles Brower didn’t learn Iñupiaq from a book, though.
A book, Krauss said, cannot teach a language. “It has a record of the words of the language, yes, but it is not the instrument,” he said.
A language can be revived at many different levels, from purely ceremonial to fully functional, Krauss noted.
MacLean’s dictionary could play a part in an Iñupiaq revival, he said. “It’s absolutely essential, but not all you need, to revive the language,” he said.
MacLean said she sees the dictionary as one piece in the effort.
“I’m hoping the dictionary makes it easier for people to develop other materials that they can print, or translate, or interpret,” she said.
Kaplan said the dictionary, because it makes that process easier and more standardized, “is a great, great thing for language learners.”
“And Iñupiaq needs that, because the younger generations don’t usually grow up speaking the language, learning it at home,” he said. “They mostly study it at school.”
Long ago at UAF, MacLean saw something happen in her college classroom that might not only help Iñupiaq survive but also improve the academic performance of children in North Slope schools. She saw people having fun while becoming literate in their own language.
Literacy, a word MacLean uses repeatedly, is the ability to connect spoken and written words so a person can learn and express thoughts across both.
“You need that,” no matter where you live, MacLean said. “Literacy is at the heart of all the low mathematics, low reading, low science scores and writing problems, achievement problems that are rampant in the rural districts.”
Research shows that teaching indigenous languages in K–12 schools could help, she said. To develop literacy, though, a language must be written, she said.
“My granddaughter in New York, I’m constantly buying her books, but they’re all in English. I want that kind of accessibility in buying books in Iñupiaq for my grand–nieces and grand–nephews in Barrow so their parents can read Iñupiaq to them,” she said. “They’re seeing the spoken word connected to the printed word, and that promotes literacy.”
At the same time, MacLean hopes North Slope communities succeed in reviving public spaces where only Iñupiaq is spoken. The school district, she noted, wants to recreate something like the “qargi.”
“That’s the Iñupiaq word that means the community house where the whaling captains used to get together, and the rest of the community, to share hunting stories with each other so the younger people, the younger hunters, can learn things they haven’t experienced yet,” she said.
Someday soon, words from MacLean’s dictionary could be heard in such qargit across the North Slope, because, even if a book can’t teach you to talk, it can give you something to say.
Sam Bishop is a writer and editor at UAF Marketing and Communications. Born and raised in Alaska, he worked previously as a newspaper journalist for 27 years in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Washington, D.C. His past reporting career took him to places across traditional Iñupiaq ground, including Little Diomede Island, Nome, Kotzebue, Noatak and Prudhoe Bay, but he didn’t pick up any Iñupiaq language skills along the way.
Ellamarie Quimby is a master’s student in fine art photography at UAF. She studied both fine art photography and art education at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C.