How crazy is life in Alaska

Climate change in AlaskaThe cultural consequences for the Inupiat

Outside, in front of the crouched wooden house with the wobbly vestibule in front of the front door, the snow caterpillars are waiting for their first winter use. Inside, Clifford has collected everything you need for a sedentary life on an often storm-tossed small island in the Chukchi Sea, a few kilometers south of the Arctic Circle: shoes, jackets, tools, even building materials are lying around hanging on the walls close together photos, posters, old calendars, clocks.

The Eskimo language Inupiaq is dying out

Clifford Weiyouana is at the electric stove and makes breakfast for himself and his girlfriend Florence. He's 75. She's a little younger. Both have leather-tanned skin after a long life outdoors, on the ice and in the sun. Clifford was a hunter all his life. He discusses with Florence what to bring to visit her family. They speak Inupiaq, the language of their Eskimo tribe, the Inupiat.

There are always bits of English mixing into their conversation. For some things the Inupiaq simply has no words - the language seems to have fallen out of time. Only the elders speak Inupiaq. Not even Tina, his daughter, can do it anymore. She is 42. Clifford says he tried to give his grandchildren some Inupiaq to take with them. But he almost went crazy when they kept asking: "What did grandfather just say?"

When we die, the Inupiaq won't be heard anywhere, says Clifford. In a sense, this language leaves nothing behind except that throaty reverberation that resonates in Clifford's room. Inupiaq is not a written language - no letter will remind you of it.

The meaning of the word "ice" is melting away with climate change

This process of the creeping decline of a culture and a language is accelerated precisely by climate change. Because Sarichef is literally doomed. The island has been defenselessly exposed to the storms in the Chukchi Sea since there was no more pack ice to protect the island in late autumn. But it's not just about the island's survival, says Ken Stenek. He is a teacher in Shishmaref. It's about a whole culture and its language.

"We don't lose our language because we wouldn't try to pass it on to the kids. We lose it because we lose meaning for the words - for the word ice cream, for example."

Ken Stenek speaks of the enormous pressure to adapt that climate change has triggered. For the animals who have to keep moving north to find eternal ice. And for hunters like the Inupiat, who have to follow them and can no longer be sure whether the ice is still bearing. This change in living conditions, this deep cultural incision is first and foremost revealed in the language, says Ken.

"There are over 130 different words for ice cream in Inupiaq - is it thick ice, is it thin ice, is it new ice, is it melting ice. We can name all of these different forms of ice with our own word. But these words lose its meaning when the ice is gone. "

The Inupiaq was expelled from the children

However, this linguistic erosion process already started when there was still no talk of climate change. The fact that the words are left out of the language of Inupiaq was thoroughly planned and intended - and in retrospect appears only logical. When he went to school 65 or 70 years ago, the Inupiaq was practically driven out of the children, says Clifford.

"We had two teachers here from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they didn't allow us to speak the Eskimo language. They punished us if we did. We had to stand in the corner for an hour or write a hundred times on the blackboard : I don't speak Eskimo. That was the beginning of the end of our language. "

When the Inupiat were settled on the island of Sarichef in 1920 so that they would no longer move around as nomads, so that their children could go to school and the village of Sishmaref to a church - their language already lost its cultural backbone: the nomadic context, the Mind and the meaning of their vocabulary.

Alienation from one's own culture

Today there are Inupiaq classes in the school of Shishmaref. But the first language has long been English and the Inupiaq can no longer assert itself among the young people. With television, the Internet and smartphones, however, not only the vocabulary changed, but also the horizon. The break-in of the electronic worlds increased the alienation from one's own culture. The boys no longer go hunting. They want to go to the next town. Teacher Ken Stenek says:

"Our tribe has lost cohesion. And despite all the upheavals, our families no longer offer any social support. Many children no longer have any powers of resistance. They are prone to addiction, be it to drugs or electronic devices. It can also be in the families people just don't talk to each other that much anymore. "

Ken Stenek describes the speechlessness of a society that is literally losing language.

No future for the Inupiat

The Inupiaq is a language from another time, from another culture and from another world. This world is going to end. And the people of Shishmaref have to take that literally. Seen in this way, it is perhaps no coincidence that the Inupiat language lacks the word for "future" of all things. Indeed, the Inupiat no longer have a future as nomadic people in the melting ice of the Arctic. No future as a tribe in Alaska. And no future as a language community.

"Yes, our language is dying," says Clifford thoughtfully as he puts another omelet on Florence's plate. "Actually, the Inupiaq is already dead."