FEMA under investigation after ‘unintelligible’ Merbok relief information was sent to Alaska Native communities

Merbok debris
The storm surge from Typhoon Merbok brought high water 17 miles inland to Chevak from the Bering Sea coast, where boats parked on the Ninglikfak River were tossed around like bathtub toys. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

On any given day in Bethel’s airport terminal most people are speaking Yugtun, or Yup’ik. Hundreds of passengers travel to and from some of Alaska’s most remote Indigenous communities. Much of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s store-bought food travels through these same terminals, as well as supplies and equipment people might need in response to a natural disaster.

Those supplies were necessary last year after Typhoon Merbok, one of the most powerful storms in decades, destroyed homes, fish camps and subsistence gear along Alaska’s Bering Sea coast.

With Yugtun the most widely spoken Indigenous language in the region, the Federal Emergency Management Agency hired California-based company Accent on Languages to translate information on disaster assistance into Yugtun and Iñupiaq — another Indigenous language spoken by thousands.

But when Julia Jimmie, KYUK’s translator, got some of those translated materials, she couldn’t understand them. That’s because they were gibberish. It turns out the company FEMA hired to do the translations has no record of working in the Indigenous languages spoken in Alaska.

a brochure
A Federal Emergency Management brochure incorrectly presented as an Iñupiaq translation. It is written using the Inuktitut alphabet – a language spoken in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic – though speakers say it is garbled in that language as well. (From FEMA)

Jimmie grew up speaking Yugtun.

“There’s a lot of Yup’ik. There’s kids still growing up [with] Yup’ik as their first language and they go to school and learn English,” she said. “I text my kids in Yup’ik. They respond in Yup’ik and people are posting in Yup’ik on Facebook and yeah, Yup’ik is still alive.”

In September, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, her chief of staff and chief counsel received a memo from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. According to the memo, a “complaint investigation” is examining how FEMA interacted with Alaska Native communities in the aftermath of last fall’s storm.

That complaint cites KYUK’s investigation into the mistranslations as the reason it launched its investigation.

According to the memo, the office wants to find out “whether there are systemic problems” with the way FEMA works with Indigenous communities in Alaska. The office is also looking into whether FEMA violated any laws, regulations or its own policies.

Sam Berlin, who hosts a weekly radio show in Yugtun on KYUK, said he’s thrilled.

 “I think that’s a very positive thing and to know that they would take the time out for people way up here, especially in our area, when some type of disaster happens, that we can look to our government and get some kind of response,” he said.

The mistranslations were particularly galling to Berlin, who grew up speaking Yugtun, because he remembers a time when the federal government forbade Alaska Natives and American Indians from speaking their languages at all.

“Yeah, assimilation: this is what was happening,” he said. “They were trying to do away with our language.”

In an emailed statement, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan wrote that “there is no excuse” for the unintelligible translations “that leave Alaska Native people without the vital information they need in a crisis.”

Sullivan said his office would be closely monitoring the investigation.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties did not respond to a request for comment on its investigation.

Accent on Languages CEO Caroline Lee declined an interview, but in an email, said she has revamped her company’s quality control procedures.

“We have instituted … a complete overhaul of our translator vetting, onboarding and evaluation processes; and the requirement for all linguists to sign and adhere to a strict code of ethics,” she wrote.

a website
Accent on Languages touts work it has done in Alaska on its website. (www.accentonlanguages.com)

FEMA’s deputy director of external affairs, Lucas Hitt, also declined an interview. FEMA maintains the Accent on Languages has reimbursed the agency for the botched translation work it did following Typhoon Merbok. And last January, the agency told KYUK they were “no longer working” with Accent on Languages.

But according to a federal spending database, FEMA has opened nearly $480,000 in contracts with the company since last September, which does not include a contract the agency said it ended with Accent on Languages once the fraudulent translations were discovered. It’s not clear how much of that money has been paid out.

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