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Smithsonian Institution creates useful learning tool for future generations of Arctic indigenous peoples

October 29, 2013
Wales Inuiaq Sea Ice Dictionary Front Cover Front cover of the Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary.

Winton Weyapuk, Jr. was eleven years old when he started hunting with his father's crew in his home village of Wales, Alaska. When he began hunting all communication was in Inupiaq, more specifically it was in Kingikmiut, the Wales dialect of the Inupiaq language. But in Winton’s grade school classroom, the Inupiaq language was forbidden and English was spoken in school. Several generations later, English is the primary language spoken in the community.

“The Inupiaq language in Wales has been severely impacted, but it survives. It persists in the knowledge that some older adults and our Elders retain,” Winton says, “It remains firmly implanted in their thoughts, their stories, and the daily descriptions of what they have seen and done. Our Kingikmiut dialect is not yet extinct but it is endangered.” Any language recalls valuable aspects of its culture in stories and lessons, but this particular dialect encompasses unique knowledge about the Arctic environment. In fact, there are over 120 words documented for sea ice and other local phenomena in the Kingikmiut dialect spoken in Wales. Those words, as important as they are to the community, are endangered and without careful preservation are nearing extinction.

Fortunately, the endangerment of the Kingikmiut language has been on the mind of one high-esteemed researcher for several years. Anthropologist Igor Krupnik, at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center recognizes the significance in preserving this indigenous language. In 2007 he spearheaded an effort to document the indigenous subsistence terminologies of the Inupiaq dialect spoken in Wales. That same year he met with Winton Weyapuk, Jr. and began to collaborate on what would be the most extensive and detailed collection of Inupiaq terms, the Wales Inupiaq Sea Ice Dictionary. The project was developed from documentation of sea ice knowledge, a project funded by the Shared Beringian Heritage Program. The Sea Ice Knowledge and Use project resulted in a book, SIKU: Knowing Our Ice released last year and made available in both Russian and English languages.

Cover of SIKU: Knowing Our Ice Cover of the SIKU: Knowing Our Ice.

The original SIKU project focused on the documentation of traditional ecological knowledge and local observation of environmental change. Then the project incorporated the documentation of indigenous subsistence terminologies. Krupnik worked closely with Winton Weyapuk Jr. for over three years. With the help of over 40 Native contributors (hunters, elders, language and subsistence experts, artists, researchers and cultural activists) the dictionary was created. Winton Weyapuk, Jr. says, "Our use of subsistence resources also continues. Our language may be changing but the dangers inherent in hunting on ice remain the same. Hunting for whales, walrus, and seals in often changing and dangerous conditions remain the same." He hopes the dictionary can be seen as a link between the way elders communicated in the past and today’s way of communicating.

The Wales Sea Ice Dictionary is more than just your average dictionary. The dictionary received the 2012 award as Atmospheric Science Librarians International Choice in Reference Category and was the first-ever award given to a publication on indigenous languages and knowledge. It contains over 100 illustrations and 80 photographs to provide visuals of the sea ice and also show the community of Wales. As of December 2012 the SIKU team has produced two books, contributed to three more collections and illustrated catalogs, and has another 300+ page volume on the Russian project activities (Siberian Yupik Ecological Dictionary) scheduled for publication in 2013.

"We believe that the Kingikmiut words for sea ice, illustrations of many local ice forms, and the Inupiaq explanations and English translations we collected in this book will be of special help to young hunters, so that the Kingikmiut knowledge is preserved for future generations." Krupnik says of the project. The SIKU project has now come to a close, but with much to show for it. An essential element of the Inupiaq culture has been saved and not only will the dictionary be a learning tool for future Inupiaq generations, but also future researchers of environmental change can benefit from the indigenous knowledge captured by this project.

Last Updated: October 30, 2013