Project seeks to gather Alaska environmental knowledge embedded in Indigenous languages

Annauk Olin, holding her daugher Tulġuna T’aas Olin, and Rochelle Adams pose on March 20, 2024, after giving a presentation on language at the Alaska Just Transition Summit in Juneau. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

In the language of the Gwich’in people of northeastern Alaska, the word for month known in English as July is Łuk choo zhrii, meaning “the month of king salmon,” said Rochelle Adams, an Indigenous advocate who grew up in Beaver and Fort Yukon.

With Yukon River king salmon runs diminished to the point where harvests of the species were not even allowed, that name now poses a dilemma, Adams said.

“If we can’t fish in the month of king salmon, what are we living in?” Adams said at a conference last week. “How we navigate the world is in our languages. Do we have to change the name of our month?”

To help explain the changes caused by a warming climate that people are seeing on the land and in the water, Adams and language scholar and educator Annauk Olin are embarking on a project to compile a glossary of Indigenous environmental terms.

The work is being done through the Alaska Public Interest Research Group Language Access program, which Adams directs.

The two described their project at the Alaska Just Transition Summit organized by Native and environmental groups and held in Juneau last week.

“The terms our ancestors used are sometimes no longer applicable to what we’re seeing, and that is – wow,” said Olin, who is from Shishmaref, an Inupiat community just north of the Bering Strait on the Chukchi Sea coast.

The rising sun lights up the newly frozen Norton Sound sea ice off Nome on winter solstice, Dec. 21, 2018. Sea ice comes in numerous forms. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“How are young people going to understand the environment of yesterday and tomorrow and today?” she said. One answer, she said, is a close examination of traditional language.

Adams and Olin already have plenty of experience with language and cultural instruction and documentation. They, with some AKPIRG colleagues, in 2022 produced a set of protocols to guide use of translations. Other Language Access program projects included translations of information about COVID-19 and about the 2020 U.S. Census. Olin, among other projects, has helped guide the Northwest Arctic Borough School District’s language-immersion instruction. Adams is one of the creative forces behind the PBS Kids series “Molly of Denali,” serving as a cultural advisor for the Indigenous-focused show, and she has been part of the Doyon Foundation’s language revitalization committee and is also an artist known for her salmon-skin works.

At the summit session, Adams and Olin described ways that Indigenous languages are valuable in practical life.

That is shown, Olin said, in the myriad Inupiaq words describing in precise detail the different forms that sea ice can take – including the warnings that those words sometimes hold.

She read an Inupiaq passage that is an example and translated it into English: “In the spring on the landfast ice and pack ice, when they begin to thaw, melt holes form. The melt holes are dangerous, as people may get wet when they step near the holes.”

The words themselves are pieces of scientific evidence.

One Inupiaq word – pikaluyik – refers to old sea ice that is so compacted over time that it is blue, like glacier ice, according to a dictionary published in 1970. Such ice is scarcer that it used to be. Sea ice that was over four years old comprised about a third of the peak winter Arctic ice pack in the 1980s but is now down to under 5% of the total.

a sign
The University of Alaska Fairbanks site chosen for the planned Troth Yeddha’ Park and Indigenous Studies Center is seen on Sept. 18, 2022. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Western scientists have already adopted at least one Indigenous word as a term to describe an effect of climate change. The Yup’ik word usteq, which translates to “surface caves in,” is now used when referring to a catastrophic form of land collapse in which “frozen ground disintegrates under the compounding influences of thawing permafrost, flooding, and erosion,” according to the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

But in the past, the value of Indigenous languages was dismissed by the non-Native world.

Some participants in the conference session were moved to tears as they talked of language losses, like Margaret Tarrant, who spoke about her Indigenous mother who was beaten at a North Dakota reservation school in the 1950s for speaking her language, as were others. “They were made to feel ashamed about themselves,” Tarrant said.

Others said they regretted not learning their Indigenous languages when they were young and are now trying to correct that lapse. Some said they worry about languages fading as elders die.

To help reverse the losses, Adams and Olin have abundant material with which to compile an environmental glossary.

As with the Gwich’in word for July, there are numerous words in different languages that describe conditions at certain times of the year – which could be changing. In the Ahtna language, for example, the term hwdlii na’aaye’ used for the month of April translates to “crusted snow month,” according to a dictionary published in 1990 by the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Native Language Center. Inupiat terms for May refer to that as the time of year when river ice breaks or when river waters start to flow, according to the 1970 dictionary.

Other words describe the way sites were used in the past to gather food. The Dena’ina name for Ship Creek, the waterway running through downtown Anchorage and the site of the railroad construction camp that ultimately became Alaska’s largest city, is Dgheyay Leht, meaning Stickleback Creek; it was a source of fish used in a soup when salmon was not available, according to scientist Frank von Hippel, who studies that species of fish. The ridge where the UAF campus is located is called Troth Yeddha’, a Lower Tanana Athabascan name that means wild potato ridge; it was a place where that subsistence food was traditionally gathered.

The Dena’ina language is undergoing a revival of sorts in Anchorage, where there is a project focused on local place names. And for UAF, the Troth Yeddha’ name has become important. The university adopted the name for its campus and intends to use it for a planned Indigenous studies center.

Correction: The name of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group has been corrected.

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