Environmental Change and Sustainability of Indigenous Languages in Northern Alaska

Keywords: climate change; Indigenous languages; customary and traditional use; resilience; Alaska; Iñupiaq; Yupik; hunting; Indigenous knowledge

Abstract

Relatively few people under the age of 60 are fluent speakers of the various Indigenous languages of Alaska. Concurrently, climate change is severely impacting Alaska and its residents, where environments are changing far more rapidly than the majority of the planet. These factors complicate the land-language nexus and may have implications for the sustainability of Indigenous languages in Alaska and other parts of the Arctic. In this collaborative, community-centered project, we spoke with Iñupiaq and Yupik language speakers to learn how rapid environmental change affects heritage language discourse practices and how generational gaps in levels of heritage language fluency affect safety and efficacy of customary and traditional land use activities. The results show how local community choices and attitudes are reflecting and constructing dynamic ecologies of language, culture, and environment. Iñupiaq and Yupik languages provide important forms of socio-cultural resilience because they embed the past, yet are inherently dynamic. Community-driven social practices that promote increased local heritage language use can lead to new, creative language domains, new expressions of Indigenous culture, and new Indigenous stances toward a changing environment.

 

Published
2019-09-09