S1 E4: Not Even in the Dictionary

Iñupiaq dialects—spoken by people in the Northernmost parts of Alaska—are considered  “severely endangered,” with about 2,000 native speakers of these dialects alive today.

In this episode, we chat with the people who are preserving, transcribing, and translating collections of audio and video recordings of Inupiaq dialects. They discuss the joys and challenges of preserving the history and culture of the people for the next generation.


Joy Banks Narration: Hello and welcome! I’m Joy Banks, your host on this season of Material Memory. In our continuing series inspired by the U.N. declaring 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, today we’re talking about a project to preserve, transcribe, and translate collections of audio and video recordings of conferences, meetings, and oral histories in Iñupiaq dialects. These dialects are spoken in the Northernmost parts of Alaska, in villages across the area known as the “North Slope.” The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger classifies North Alaskan Iñupiaq as “severely endangered,” with about 2,000 native speakers of these dialects alive today.


I talked to three participants in this project:


Leona Okakok: My name is Leona Okakok. My family called me Kisautaq. It’s my Eskimo name. And I do the transcribing and translating of, the Elders’ Conferences. That is what I’m working on right now. Retired, but working.


Jason Russell: My name is Jason Russell, and I work at [Iḷisaġvik Tribal College] Tuzzy Consortium Library. So I’m the, essentially managing the grant and I work as archivist over here.


Billy Kenton: My name is Billy William Kenton, and I’m digitizing technician for the Iḷisaġvik College, a joint venture between Iḷisaġvik College and the Iñupiat Heritage Center, the IHLC.


Joy Banks Narration: Iḷisaġvik College and the Iñupiat History, Language, and Culture Center—sometimes referred to as the IHLC or the Heritage Center in this conversation—are partners on an ongoing grant-funded initiative supported through CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program. Leona, Jason, and Billy began working together on this project in 2018. This episode is drawn from two separate conversations. In the first, which took place in August of 2019, I spoke to Leona, the transcriber and translator, and Jason, the archivist and project manager. The second conversation happened a month later and included Jason again, as well as Billy Kenton, who is digitizing and describing recordings held by the project partners. Our episode today weaves together these two conversations.


Joy Banks: So I just wanted to start with you telling us a little bit about your project and some of your connections to it.


Leona Okakok: I’ve been translating pretty much most of my life. When I was about seven years old, my dad went away to seminary, and while he was there, he, he got pleurisy so he ended up in the hospital for several months. And he would write to my stepmother, and I had to translate those letters for her so she could, because she couldn’t speak English or understand English. So I was translating at seven, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I love language. I’ve, I’ve done a couple of other books. I did the first Elders’ Conference of 1978 while my husband and I lived in California when he was going to seminary. So I do know what needs to get across to the young people today. So for that reason, I’ve taken this back on after several years, although I did translate a book called, had something to do with ice, took us like three years. But it’s an excellent way to work with our language. Just some stuff we know that is written down, we know about it already. It’s about the ice up here, the Arctic, where it’s melting, how things are changing, we know and live that situation. So that was a good fit for us, too. But I love language. I’ve always loved it. I was a language major, major at the University of Alaska Fairbanks back in the 70s. So that’s been my life’s work, basically. I love it. I’m so glad I, um Billy, Billy is the one who remembered that I do this type of work.


Jason Russell: Yeah, and he should get all that, all that credit for…


Leona Okakok: I was actually, I had stopped the other project—that was the ice project—just about a year before. And I was feeling kind of, “I’m retired, but I want to do something.” So it was at that stage that I was approached, and I said, “Yes!” right away.


Joy Banks: It’s so great to have a native speaker on a project like this, especially somebody who’s been so engaged in translation.


Leona Okakok: A lot of speakers that do translate now, they’re okay, but the elders that I listen to when when I’m translating, they have such a, such a command of the language. They use phrases that we don’t use anymore or haven’t heard in a long time. And I notice that they’d say something short, and I have to take a whole three or four more spaces to translate what they just said in a couple sentences. So I do literal translation, because I want to get across what they’re saying. So it’s really tough work, but they’ve got such a wonderful way of saying things that I just have to do it literally. I don’t like to change it around to current, or today’s language, just to keep the, keep the way they say things in the language rather than taking it out and exchange it for current way of saying things.


Jason Russell: Keeping it in context.


Leona Okakok: Yeah, keeping it in context. And also just today’s young people don’t have the command of language that even we do. But it’s still alive and kicking. My granddaughter understands me when I talk to her. She won’t to speak back to me, but she understands quite a lot of what I say. She just turned five. So we’re hoping we bring up a generation of speakers.


Joy Banks Narration: Digitization technician Billy Kenton also speaks the Iñupiaq language. In our conversation, I asked him about how his language skills and local knowledge have been an asset to the project.


Billy Kenton: My mother went to a boarding school for six years, and in the fifties she got sent out to a boarding school. And when she came back, her and my grandmother, they would talk to me in English, but I would listen to them. They would talk to each other in Iñupiaq, but they would talk to me only in English. But I would get close to them when they were speaking our native language. And some of my words I, sometimes, I get mixed up speaking it, but I can understand it real well. And it’s all coming back to me. And I’m grateful for that, and some of these words I haven’t heard for a long time. And, oh, I haven’t heard these Iñupiaq words for a long time, and they’re coming back to me.


Billy Kenton: Yeah, and some of these Iñupiaq words when you’re trying to translate them to English, it’ll sometimes even some of the elders around here, and even Leona, sometimes, there’s some Iñupiaq words that can’t be translated right to English. But when we’re speaking it, we can understand what they’re talking about.


Joy Banks: Are you finding that you’re able to identify a lot of the speakers on the recordings?


Billy Kenton: Yeah, just listening. I’ve done a lot of traveling in the past to a lot of the villages. And just hearing them talk sometimes I, it sounds like this person, and when they’re speaking, and later on they’ll say their names and yeah, I was right, it was that person. Even before they mention their name, sometimes I’ll type in their names and I’ll, I’d be correct on that. And I’ve known Leona for quite a while and listening to her, too, in the seventies when she’s doing the actual translating when the Elders’ Conference, Conferences first started. And listening to her when she was a young lady, too. And I can recognize her voice, too, right away. When they interviewed some of the elders, some of these stories I heard about, too, when I was a little boy, and it’s become pretty exciting, and I’ve had other job offers all right, but then I didn’t want to abandon this project. And I like what I’m doing right now. And there I have several people, other tapes from the, several of the seven surrounding villages, and I’m pretty familiar with a lot of the dialects that they speak, and my mother, a while back, she helped the North Slope Borough form the health department up here. And we did a lot of traveling to the villages. And, and she also used to be a probation officer.


Joy Banks: Insider knowledge of everybody—


Joy Banks Narration: Billy’s personal experience has been invaluable to the project. In the same way, Leona’s expertise in transcription has helped to guide project decisions. We’ll pick back up on our conversation with Leona and Jason, as they discuss the value of the particular approach to translation Leona is taking.


Jason Russell: One thing that I really like about doing a literal translation is that it sets you up so nicely. Once you have kind of that large body of material translated literally, you can then compare it to, say, literal translations of people how they’re speaking today. And you’re, you’re, it allows for you to do, or to document language shift. So where is the language shifting, how is it shifting.


Leona Okakok: Yes.


Jason Russell: And I think will be of great use in a number of different ways in addition to instructing the young ones in the community. So as a research piece, I think it will be pretty important as well.


Leona Okakok: Yeah. The school district was using it when they’re teaching language. Because it was a literal translation, they were able to see what part of the language says what. They have used it at the, at the Iḷisaġvik College when they teach Iñupiaq, because most of the translations are translated into current language use. But the 1978 Elders’ Conference is used even, even today, to teach how the language is constructed.


Joy Banks: Can you talk a little bit about what is contained on the materials that you’re digitizing?


Jason Russell: It’s quite a variety of material. So, some of it are the Elders’ and Youth Conferences.


Leona Okakok: Oh yes.


Jason Russell: And that is obviously quite important part of the whole thing that’s being digitized. Other parts of it include, say, meetings. I remember Billy digitizing meetings discussing the Heritage Center construction. And a very important part also is the Traditional Land Use Inventory material.


Leona Okakok: Oh yeah.


Jason Russell: That’s one section that will have special consideration as far as ensuring appropriate access to the material, now that it’s digitized. We’ve talked with, over at the planning department, some ways that we can try to make their access to that TLUI [Traditional Land Use Inventory] information easier. They were very excited when I was talking about doing the optical character recognition, so OCR-ing the created transcriptions and translations, and so that—it’ll really help streamline when they interact with the material.


Leona Okakok: Yeah. This whole thing about Elders’ Conferences up here started when the oil companies were starting to explore over in the Kuparuk area and saying at all the meetings that this is unused land, never had been lived in. And the problem was that all our elders and all our own people were taught to leave the land cleaner than it was when they came. So everything always looked unused and barren and no, no activity ever. But the elders remembered where they went, what they did where, and this is all the stuff that they were talking about. The Traditional Land Use Inventory came from that, that they recorded where they used to camp, where they used to live, where they lived in the summer, where they lived in the winter, because it was quite different, because of the animals that they had to catch for food during certain times of the year. They lived everywhere pretty much. So it wasn’t land that was unused. It was used continually for thousands of years and it just looked barren and unused because that’s how we were supposed to leave it. So this was the impetus for the Elders’ Conferences back in the 70s.


Joy Banks: So what is the date range covered with these recordings?


Leona Okakok: The Elders’ Conferences started in 1978. I know that there were other recordings. I’ve done some work with the recordings at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with individuals talking about how they grew up, where they grew up, and what type of activities, hunting, what animals they hunted, how they hunted them, and all of this. So it’s probably a wide range, but the Elders’ Conferences are still happening, like every other year or so.


Jason Russell: Yeah.


Leona Okakok: But back when we started, it was every year for about four years or so. Five years, maybe more.


Jason Russell: Billy has seen quite that large range of material, and we can certainly tell the tapes that are in the early seventies and whatnot, cause the condition’s pretty poor. The physical condition of the material is pretty poor. They are essentially past their life. So, I mean some of the tapes, we have a good, actually a good stack of tapes that we were not able to digitize because of the condition of the physical material itself. And that’s just going to have to be looked at, shipped out to a lab to get processed, cause it’s just something we can’t do internally. And he, I think, is seeing, what, audio tapes up into the nineties, something like that?


Leona Okakok: Probably, yeah.


Jason Russell: Yeah. It runs the span of decades.


Joy Banks Narration: Billy discussed the work he has been doing with the materials so far, which involves a great deal more than just converting the recordings into digital form.


Billy Kenton: When I first got into this, I didn’t really think of it very much, but as I, as it progressed, and listening to these stories of long ago, and in the eighties—seventies, eighties and nineties—I guess they had people that didn’t really understand Iñupiaq very much, cause they had a lot of temporary workers and they would make mistakes on the translating. And there have been several mistakes they had put on the descriptions, and I’m making those corrections of what subjects they’re talking about, and, and the Heritage Centers are great—glad that I’m doing this.


Joy Banks: It sounds to me like a lot of the content on these is extremely important to documenting some of the history and culture of the people of the area.


Jason Russell: Oh, I would absolutely say yes. I remember Billy relating to me even on these kind of internal recorded meetings, and many of the topics discussed within include quite precious information that may be a little tangential to the purpose of the meeting, but there’s, it’s such a gem that would be able to be extracted, some offhand comment mentioned by an Elder that was attending that particular meeting and really it was impactful enough for Billy to make special mention of it. And part of what he does is kind of do a short summary of these tapes and it helps, helps pull in some metadata together for us. That’s even just the meetings, but obviously the Conferences material is an order of magnitude more important just because of the volume of, of wonderful information discussed within them.


Leona Okakok: It’s also interesting that there are a lot of personal recordings like reel-to-reel tapes and cassette tapes of people just talking to each other. These are people who could not speak or read or write English. And our language was not written down back then when people started using the reel-to-reel tapes to write letters. I say “write” letters to each other, but they would tape either legends, or what’s happening with the family or the village, what’s going on in the village, and they would send it to somebody who was not there anymore. My, my aunt Leona, whom I’m named after, had married and lived in Anchorage for years and my grandmother and she would exchange tapes so they could keep in touch. So there’s probably a lot of stuff out there that is now not usable because it was a medium that was not going to be usable anymore. Because of the dry conditions up here, especially. Even though we’re right by the ocean, it’s, we’re considered a desert area because of the small amount of rain we get a year. Although you can’t tell it by this year.


Jason Russell: No. Yeah, it’s been wet.


Leona Okakok: It’s been really wet, yeah. But the biggest problem we’ve had all these years, especially with when we started having rugs on the floor, is electricity. What is it called?


Jason Russell: Oh, static electricity.


Leona Okakok: Static. Constant, because it’s so dry up here. That was a big minus when people wanted to upgrade their homes. They said, “No rugs please. No rugs.”


Jason Russell: Yeah. Yeah.


Joy Banks: Can you talk a little bit about maybe just your community?


Leona Okakok: Oh, well this, our own village of Utqiagvik, which for many, many years had the name Barrow, Alaska, “top of the world.” Just recently, a few years ago went back to its original name: Utqiagvik. And it’s pretty large now compared to when I was growing up. When I was growing up, this area that we’re sitting in, where the library is, was all barren—no buildings, no nothing. And across town were the main villages. Back when I was growing up, there were about maybe five, 500 to 600 people and now there’s, I think, over 5,000.


Jason Russell: Yeah. Yeah.


Leona Okakok: The census—the latest census. And a lot of the people now are non-natives or non … people not from here. They have moved in from villages. We are the largest community on the Slope. At least the villages; I don’t know about the oil company. We’re the largest community and we’re the seat of the local government. The seat of the local government is here, the North Slope Borough. And a lot of the jobs are with the Borough or with the native corporations that are in every village across the Slope, as it is in Alaska. But we’re pretty modern now. We get when I tried to order something from online, they’d say, “I’m sorry, we don’t ship to foreign countries.” So we try to educate a lot of people, as much as we can. But the diversity in the community is so huge now. Back when I was growing up, back in the forties and fifties, you barely saw any non-native people. And the ones who were here did not come with their families. A lot of them, they just come up to work and provide some sort of living to send back home. When we went down to California for a school board convention, we met our superintendent’s cousin. And my husband piped up. He said, “Cousin? I didn’t know white people had cousins!” Cause all of the white people up here, they don’t have their nieces, nephews, cousins, grandparents. But he would, that was so funny. Of course he knew they did. But he always razzes, razzed her about that. But it is very diverse now. There’s whole families, whole communities of other people, like a big Filipino community, a big Tongan community up here, so, besides ours. So we’re getting very diverse, and we have daily plane service, which people don’t know. Twice a day, in fact, during the winter, and more during the summer tourist season. And we have stores, even computer stores, of all things—at least they have some things, but we still have to order parts and things from other places. But for native people, the local stores is just for variety or to help us to get our own food, our caribou, our seals, our whales, our fish. To get something else to, to give us a little bit of variety. And lots of, well not lots, but some hotels and several restaurants. So,


Jason Russell: There’s even a B and B up here, too.


Leona Okakok: Oh yeah. And a B and B up here, too. That, I did hear about that. Yeah.


Jason Russell: Yeah, yeah.


Leona Okakok: There’s lots of things to do now. Some days you wish for the old days, when you could be outside almost all day, all summer long. You’re out there til two, three in the morning, even as kids, because the sun is still shining and we’re out, taking advantage of it as much as we possibly can. And then, um, in the winter we can, we can sleep all we want. Except for school of course. But yeah, we take it as it comes.


Jason Russell: When I first got up here in 2015, it was towards the start of the summer, and I thought it was the cutest thing that, say, you get the kids that stay up all night, and they come to the library, and we’d open up at nine. And go into the teen space and then they’d just kind of pass out. Lay their heads on the table and pass out for a little while. I mean, when the sun’s out or when the sun’s down. I mean, time is such a concept, as opposed to a concrete thing that moves forward. It’s so easy to lose track of what day it is. So you do get people that are, “What day is this? I thought it was Friday.” And it’s like Tuesday.


Leona Okakok: Yeah.


Jason Russell: Yeah. So, growing up in Fairbanks, in the interior of Alaska—thankfully I did not grow up in the city—I grew up about 12 miles outside of town, and so we had a—grew up with our dogs, and we had our dog lot. We’d always be mushing, and skijoring, and things like that. In some sense you’re kind of defined by your, by your environment. So the actions that you’re doing in the winter aren’t those that you’re doing in the summer, obviously. In winter you’re dog mushing and doing those other external activities. And I really like it up here because the winter allows for me to kind of in some sense get back to how I was growing up, in terms of being in, interacting with the environment around me. And I don’t have my dogs anymore. I don’t have, we don’t have, our dog lot up here. But it’s still, it’s, it’s a, it’s something that’s really quite nice. I like it. They just got wifi in the area. So even, even in the interior, there’s, you know, in many ways, that infrastructure just isn’t in place. I mean, we just got the ability to have wifi at my parents’ house. And another good example is, I mean growing up, uh, well here, there’s a lot of people that aren’t on the, [Barrow] Utilidor, so many of them don’t have running water, or indoor plumbing, and things along that nature. In Fairbanks we had, we were able to dig in, cause we didn’t have the permafrost to deal with. It wasn’t as close to the surface. There’s more topsoil. And the, there’s also the water table that you didn’t have to deal with as much. Even though we got indoor plumbing in high school, before that we had our kind of external way of taking care of business, by using an outhouse. And it’s, it’s not quite the same thing as, say, a “honey bucket,” but it’s, it’s, it’s some, in my opinion at least, there’s some commonalities. It’s, it’s a little thing, but you’re kind of living closer to the land in some sense. I don’t know. It’s kind of a horrible thing to bring up in, in a podcast.


Joy Banks: It does sort of segue very nicely into talking about access, because I think a lot of people forget that not everybody, say, is connected to wifi or high-speed internet. It seems to me like you’ve come up with a few really interesting ways to think about access for your community.


Jason Russell: So that’s one of the things that we’ve had a number of conversations about. Kathy Ahgeak and Reanne Tupaaq [Johnson] and I, and a number of people. [1] We’ve been trying to figure out, to roll around, the ideas of, well, how are we going to maximize access to the people that need to have effective and efficient access to the material? In many ways it comes down to, how do you access, or how do you have a community that only has one quote unquote “pipe” to the outside world. They can’t really spend eight hours downloading a video because halfway through, all of the bandwidth is going to be taken up or superseded by some emergency broadcast or something like that. Or say, say EMS is trying to communicate, and if they’re trying to, if they’re taking up all the bandwidth, it stops that download. So having local access to the material is being given very strong consideration. So having even something as simple as a dedicated computer with a copy of the database on the hard drive, not stored on some server somewhere else, that’s really been given strong consideration. Sure, the interactive kiosk is always a good thing, but funding is—for that sort of equipment—can be kind of hard. And then there’s getting it out to the villages. And then there’s maintenance to be considered. And it’s really, it’s expensive to do that in Alaska. It’s even more expensive when you consider getting all that equipment up into Barrow, or to Utqiagvik. And then just shifting it out to some of the smaller communities: that’s even more expensive. And many times, the simplest solution is probably the best one, cause it’s the most sustainable for the long term. In some cases, though, some of the information is just, it won’t be put online because it can’t be due to the nature of the material. We’re maximizing what access that we can, simply by, say, OCRing the transcriptions, and the translations that do get done. And in a sense that’s increasing access because it’ll help the individuals at the planning department better be able to interact with that body of material and fulfill any sort of requests. Yeah, so in a lot of different ways, like, the short of that is. Time can be carved out in upcoming conferences where so many people come, come into town to kind of kind of participate in those, in those conferences. And there is also the oral historians that will be another avenue, another conduit towards accessing this material, since they’re going to be active and expanding the collections on the Mukurtu content management system.


Joy Banks: Can you just say a couple of sentences about Mukurtu, for anyone who might be unfamiliar with that?


Jason Russell: Sure. So Mukurtu is a content management system initially developed for the Warumungu people living in Australia. Access for their material, it’s very prescribed. And what I mean by that is, you can only access certain content at a certain time of year, at a certain place, and by certain, certain people who have that, those specific unique roles in the community. From out of that, there are traditional knowledge labels that get attached to the material which help to guide access. So, say, there might be a, a “women-only,” or “elders-only” or springtime. Or these stories can only be related at a certain place right after breakup, or something like that. So the whole point is trying to take into account that when you digitize something, you in a sense remove it from the context of how it fits within the community, within the land, within the environment, and trying to bring it back, bring back those connections that are so critical, and how to best understand and interact with that material.


Joy Banks (Narration): Jason and Billy expanded upon their plans for creating access when we connected a bit later.


Jason Russell: The goal is to get that full run of Elders’ and Youth Conferences converted, put onto DVDs, and put into our circulating collections—our local regional collection—for people to be viewing. There are a few years that we have, but having a full run for people would be amazing, cause those are one of the most circulated items within our collection. Looking to make it so that people can check the movies out. It wouldn’t need an internet connection to, to be able to do that.


Billy Kenton: There’s a lot of people around town that really don’t have any computer access. And it’s real nice that it’ll be digitized to DVDs. And there’s some people around the villages, and here around Barrow too, about, “When are these actual video captures going to be available?” And I keep telling these people, “Well, I haven’t really gone into the actual videos yet. And I’m not too sure when they’ll be available, but there’s been a whole bunch of people around here in Barrow, and also from the villages, asking me about that. And when it comes out, I believe a lot of these DVD videos are going to be actually going out constantly. ‘Cause a lot of people around the North Slope, they’ve been asking about those.


Joy Banks: So what makes them so popular? Why are people interested in watching those?


Billy Kenton: A lot of the traditions and knowledge there, with a lot of these rapid changes that are going on up here, a lot of it is getting lost. And a lot of the people around want to get back into the history and culture. And I believe this would be a real good way of actually listening and watching the actual videos of what the elders are talking about. And I believe that would help get the culture back together again. I also do volunteer work for our church, and I sing with a choir. We have a lot, a lot of hymns that are translated to Iñupiaq and there’s not very many people that can sing those songs. And so when the church asked me—since they know I can sing a lot of Iñupiaq hymns—and they ask me to join in. And, and I couldn’t say “no” to the church. And I, whenever they have funerals, we have, always have, our choir specials. And, and I’m grateful that I grew up going to church and knowing a lot of these Iñupiaq hymns that were translated from English. When I went through elementary school, we had one Iñupiaq class, and I was only allowed to speak Iñupiaq in that one class, the Iñupiaq class. And when I went to the other classes, they used to slap our hands. And we were told not to tell our parents that, and we would get punished when they found out that we told our parents about that. But what a lot of us kids, we sometimes, we would gather alone together and we would speak our language away from the teachers. But we got along real good with the teachers way back then.


Joy Banks: Are they teaching the language in the schools now?


Billy Kenton: Yes. They have, they actually have an immersion class, too, where they can—where they teach the young ones. It’ll be all-day Iñupiaq. And they gave a permission slip, where the parent’s choice of which way the kids should go, for English or Iñupiaq.


Joy Banks: Tell me, what is so important about preserving these materials in your collection? About being thoughtful about access, about thinking about the language? What—Why—Why are you doing all this?


Leona Okakok: Oh, where to start?


Joy Banks: It’s a big question.


Leona Okakok: Yeah. I’ve worked and studied languages for a long, long time. I, I was majoring in Iñupiaq language at the college. And in order to get there, I had to take another dialect of our language, another, a different dialect, and learn it for—or study it for—one semester. And the interesting thing about it is that when we started the Elders’ Conferences up here, a group of dancers came in from the Bethel area. They speak this language that I had studied that one semester, and for some reason they lost their guide who spoke the language for them. These were all elders in a dance group, and I happened to be walking by and I understood a little bit of what they were saying, that they felt kind of lost, so I talked to them very slowly. But it’s interesting that after I used it that one time, that I can’t remember what the language, how to speak that language anymore. But I’m sure they appreciated that I was able to do that. When we first started the Elders’ Conferences, we had agendas: we’re going to talk about this for two hours, we’ll talk about this, and we’ll talk about that, and traditional land use was the most important thing back then. And we talked about those things, but at one point the elders were saying, “When do we get to talk to you about what we think you should know?” And for that reason, we kind of had a basic outline of what we wanted to do—what we wanted to record for future generations—but they also were able to, one year, get information that they wanted to talk about or something, that just hit their mind just that day. And they wanted to get it out because it’s—they couldn’t do it because it was never on the agenda before. So, I think we need to be very thoughtful about what it is that they want us to know. We know what, we know a lot of times what we want to pull from them, but they also have this vast amount of knowledge that they want to pass on, but they never seem to get the chance to do so. And it’s still in our language. They find it hard to speak it in English—that’s foreign to them to begin with—and to try to pass it on to us who are the younger generation of basically English speakers. They want to pass it on to them, but we need to make sure that they are able to do so in the language they are comfortable with—that they know they are passing it on in its true form. So for that reason, I think the language is still so, so very important. But we also need the translators to get that across. We feel kind of like a bridge, but I find that I have to work on my English language a lot when I was first starting to translate, because I knew it basically meant something—a common English word—but there’s so, so much more to it than that one word, that I had to work really hard at learning the language to which I was translating. But they have the knowledge, and in order to get that knowledge, we have to learn the language in which they gave it to us. For that reason, I think it’s so important.


Joy Banks (Narration): When speaking with Billy, he echoed what Leona shared about the significance of the project.

Billy Kenton: To preserve the history and some of the knowledge so that it can be passed on to the next generation, and some of these stories that they haven’t been told over again for a long time. And they can be preserved for the next generation for other people to view. And they’re being fully translated by Leona Okakok. Just last week, we had talked, and 40 years ago she translated a 1978 tape, cassette tape. And 40 years later she’s translating a 1979 Elders’ Conference.


Jason Russell: My important part of this is just to stay out of it as much as possible, and just facilitate whatever Billy needs, whatever Leona needs, whatever Heritage Center staff need. And doing as much work as I can in the back just to keep things going smoothly. And I just keep telling myself that, and it really, I think, oh I think it helps. Yeah.


Leona Okakok: Oh yeah. That’s stuff that we translators don’t want to do.


Jason Russell: Yeah. Yeah.


Leona Okakok: You’re very useful, Jason.


Joy Banks: Leona, are you, do you have any apprentices or is there sort of an interest in the next generation to pick up some of the work that you’ve done with translation?


Leona Okakok: Oh, oh yeah, some, some of the kids do mention to me sometimes that the translation that I did for the 1978 Conference that they were so, so thankful that it was in a useful format for them to learn the language, because of its literal translation. I always think that they have to take that literal translation another step to get it to something that’s more understandable, but for the current speakers. But I think it’s the next generation, they, they find this type of thing more helpful for them to learn the language. We’ve been babysitting our granddaughter since she was born, and she has a speech problem, so she’s not able to talk back to us a lot. But she can understand a lot of what we say. My daughter grew up—she’s my youngest daughter with basically all English-speaking—she can understand some words here and there and, and can answer back, in fact, from what she understands. But she heard me speaking all in Iñupiaq to her daughter. And she’s staring at her daughter to see what she’d do. And she’d just get up and do what I told her to do, and everything that I told her to do. And she’s just amazed that her daughter—who cannot talk very well—can understand a language that she has a hard time with. So you know, you have to catch them young.


Jason Russell: Yeah.


Leona Okakok: Yeah, you really have to catch them young, if you want the language to continue. School is fine, but sometimes it’s a little late.


Jason Russell: Yeah, education starts at—


Leona Okakok: Yeah, education starts at home.


Jason Russell: So you have Elders’ place in terms of passing knowledge to the young, and that important critical role, and ensuring that that’s—


Leona Okakok: Yeah, they used to invite Elders all the time to go speak at the school…


Jason Russell: Yeah.


Leona Okakok:…For the, uh, program. I went there and spoke. I wasn’t an Elder back then, but I went and spoke with them about what we used to do. My dad was invited to talk about his reindeer herding days. I don’t know where the program is—where it stands right now—but…


Jason Russell: Um hm.


Leona Okakok: …They did used to have that so that the children could hear directly from the Elders.


Joy Banks: Leona, you said that there wasn’t a written version of the language until recently, so when, when did that come about?


Leona Okakok: Well, that basically started when they started translating the Bible into Iñupiaq—into our language—and at the same time, they had to start teaching our people about how to read the language they’re now writing down. Because we, we could read and write English back then, but this was probably started in the, probably, the forties—somewhere there—but it was in the fifties that I knew that Roy Ahmaogak had started translating the New Testament into our Iñupiaq language. And one of our younger people used to teach a class of elders on how to read and write the Iñupiaq language, our own language. And it was so cute. Those elders got all ready to go to school. They’re sitting there, and they can’t wait til class starts, and they can head off to school.


Jason Russell: That’s so …


Leona Okakok: They had an evening session where they taught the elders how to read and write the Iñupiaq language so they could read the Bible in their own language.


Leona Okakok: They knew how to speak. They just didn’t know the written, written language. But that part of it, I know, was in the fifties and sixties. There’s a lot of, a lot of elders now who can read and write the, our language.


Jason Russell: Um hm. And don’t you see also the, as the whole getting the written form of the language—getting that figured out—the, the change in the way the language has been written?


Leona Okakok: Oh yes. Actually I like the original one where Ahmaogak had it, when he first started working on it. The R was like the French R [makes sound]. And then they changed it to a dotted G. Which if they had kept some of those, I think we could have done away with having to develop a whole, complete new fonts and stuff for typewriters and computers. But the way you do it now, I’m so used to it, and I can, I can type on it pretty well while they’re speaking, if I slow down the tape. And that’s where I find it, the—what do you call that—foot pedal?


Jason Russell: The foot pedal, yeah.


Leona Okakok: Yeah. So, so helpful because I can slow it down to where I can pretty much keep up with the speech. And go ahead and type it up.


Joy Banks: So you’re actually doing transcription work, too.


Leona Okakok: I’m doing the transcription and the translation. That original one that I did was in an actual book and it has one column in our language and the next column is in English. So they’re right there together. And I think that’s what the school kids really found helpful. But there’s a vast amount of work out there. I just wish we could find more people that do the translation work.


Jason Russell: Yeah. It was felt that while you’re assisting on this project that it would be really important to have that component be done by the same person. And I went with that recommendation that I was given, cause I figured they would know.


Leona Okakok: Yeah.


Jason Russell: Yeah. It may mean in the end that the amount of material that’s done is a bit less than what would be done otherwise, but the body of processed material will be a solid, such a solid, piece. It’s authoritative, and it’s been processed fully and it can really be of use without having to get some grant down the road to finish doing something that was started in—2018? “What? That’s so long ago!” You know, sort of thing. Oh, and, oh, one other thing as far as kind of the processing of all of this really should be kind of highlighted—even though it’s kind of obvious—is that the time is certainly now to get this material processed, these audiotapes. Oftentimes Billy has mentioned that the tapes themselves, the content on the tape, has been transferred three times to new material, to, to new tapes, because the old ones were getting ratty, and they needed to get the material off. And you have that sort of degradation. You have, you’ve got on the U-matic material, you’ve got that degradation. There were some tapes that had to be sent out, that the lab down in Anchorage couldn’t handle. They had to send it out to a different lab, just because of how bad it was, and it was a quite a bit more expensive, but it’s just something that has to, had to happen. And I know, similarly, there’s quite a lot, you mentioned earlier, there’s quite a lot of reel-to-reel material that is slowly being worked on, but it’s in such poor condition that you almost need to get a full lab. And our VHS tapes: most of it was pretty good, but you don’t want to wait. We’re about at end-of-life on VHS material, and especially the recorded, the home VHS material. So, yeah, the U-matics especially, but VHS: time is now.


Joy Banks (Narration): Before we wrapped up our interviews, I asked Billy, Jason, and Leona to share one thing—one recording, one moment, or one interaction they’ve experienced during the project so far—that has been especially meaningful or exciting to them.


Billy Kenton: There was one, one time when I went across my mother, when they interviewed her, when she was, uh, talking about when she was sent to a boarding school. She had a, a middle school in the Wrangell area, and instead of coming home for the summer after middle school, she went down to San Francisco. And her, her teacher and her friend had asked her to follow her down there, and she went, and spent the whole summer and when she came back to Alaska she went to a, a Christian high school, which is called Sheldon Jackson. It’s a Christian high school boarding school. My mother was telling stories that when they would get homesick, they would all—a lot of the people from the villages around the North Slope area around here—they would all gather together, and one person would be crying, real homesick. And they would all just gather and try to cheer each other up. And that was one of the, one of the main stories. That, that probably might be one of my favorite, of my mom talking. It was about only about five minutes of it, but then I’m pretty sure she had a lot of more to say, but she didn’t say very much. That was quite exciting, when I didn’t even know that they interviewed my mother, and that was, I was just real happy to hear her talking about it.


Joy Banks: Yeah. I can’t even imagine what that would be like in the, in the course of the work that you are doing to come across something like that.


Billy Kenton: My mother telling some old stories—when she was a little girl, she had an older brother that would go hunting every day. When she was a little girl, she would always try to follow my older uncle, and my uncle would try to get away from her. But my mother would tag along and follow, follow, follow him, and go out hunting. And listening to her talking about that, it was quite interesting, about that. Some of these elders from the early 1900s, when some of the elders that they interviewed in the seventies, that had [remembered] when school first started up here: they would get credit for the day if they went home and taught their parents one English word, and that was some of the stories that I’ve come around to, with some of these elders telling stories.


Jason Russell: Oh, I don’t think Billy will mind me saying this. Oftentimes hearing him singing along, while he’s doing his digitizing, his processing. Like, oh my gosh, it almost brings a tear to my eye. It’s like, “Oh, that’s so special.” It’s those little moments that, that really make it—make all of that effort that I’m putting in, all those long days. It really makes it worthwhile for me.


Leona Okakok: Yeah. With me, it’s all of those people, all of the elders that are on those tapes, are now gone. And I can’t go over and ask them what they meant when they said something. And our Iñupiaq language, Iñupiaq-to-English dictionary just came out a few years ago, and that helps a lot. In fact, I use it quite a lot. But I think the most exciting one for me, it’s when I do find a word that’s not even in the dictionary, because it would never, nobody had ever heard it or, or used it and I had to find a way to define it in order to do the translation correctly. I think those moments, I find that my work is just worth…


Jason Russell: Oh yeah.


Leona Okakok: …worth so much because when you discover something that’s not ever used anymore, it’s very exciting. And I can’t wait to tell Dr. [Edna Ahgeak] Maclean about, “You missed this word!” She has a huge dictionary that took her years and years. She did a fantastic job by the way.


Joy Banks: You can help with the second edition. What a privilege, and how exciting that really must be for you.


Leona Okakok: Oh yes it is. It keeps me going every day.


Jason Russell: Oh it does, yeah. And also it’s looking forward, beyond this project. One of the things I love doing is, well, cataloging, and I really want to try to do some more cataloging—not in English. My goal is to really do cataloging in Iñupiaq. It’s going to be hard, especially since I can’t write it, but that’s, I think, a worthwhile problem to set as a cataloger before myself to try to get done. And I think it’s worthwhile, and I think it will help. Billy’s told me several times that he’s been approached by people in the community here that they, it kind of gets around, some of the things that people are working on. And there’s like, “Oh you, you’re doing that? Oh, okay, I’ve got all this other material!” You know, and that’s how stuff grows from one project to the next.


Leona Okakok: Oh yeah.


Jason Russell: I’m already looking: I really want to try to use that capture station as a nice way for people to come in, and I’d be able to do instruction, but they would also, they’d be able to get their material processed and then we get it stored on LTO [digital tape cartridges]. That’s the workflow I’m kind of envisioning. So we get it stored on LTO, get an offsite backup, so they have their material stored and saved. And you can fit about eight terabytes on each cartridge. So, it is very easy. It’s something that doesn’t have a large footprint within the archive, and it’s, it’s something that can be a great, wonderful service for the community going forward. And already people are asking, and I’ve hardly done any, hardly done any work on my end. It’s all really just through things that have, that Billy has related to other people. And, I mean, looking, looking forward, that’s one way that we can kind of continue this, or at least I can kind of continue this, and keeps, um, making it meaningful into the future as well.


Joy Banks: Well thank you so much for your time. I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with you. It’s just been such a pleasure for me.


Jason Russell: Well, thank you.


Leona Okakok: Thank you. Yes, thank you very much.


Joy Banks: Thanks for listening to our episode. We hope that you’ll join us for Episode Five, when we’ll talk to Lina Ortega at the University of Oklahoma about the Indians for Indians Radio Hour. More information on this and all our episodes, including show notes, transcripts, information on our guests, and links to their projects and social media, can be found online at material-memory.clir.org.


If you like our podcast, we hope you’ll rate, review, and subscribe.

CLIR is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. Learn more about us at clir.org.


To learn more about preservation efforts happening in your area and ways that you can contribute, visit your local library, archive, museum, or historical society.

Material Memory is produced by CLIR, with the assistance of Ernesto Gluecksmann, Christa Williford, Kathlin Smith, and Lizzi Albert. Our audio engineer is Benjamin Green. Our theme music is by Poddington Bear.


I’m Joy and I’ll see you next time on Material Memory.



[1] Reanne Tupaaq has since moved on from her position as director of the IHLC.

Behind The Mic

Joy Banks

Show Host

Joy Banks is program officer for CLIR’s grant team. She helps manage communications, outreach, and assessment activities for the Recordings at Risk, Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives, and Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives programs. She is the author of The Foundations of Discovery: A Report on the Assessment of the Impacts of the Cataloging Hidden Collections Program, 2008-2019, published in 2019.

Billy Kenton

Billy Kenton


Billy Kenton is from Barrow, Alaska and works at the Tuzzy Library as a digitization technician. He digitizes recordings of Inupiat culture and stories as told by elders of the past, and also does some translating and summarizing of the recordings, as well as making corrections on past mistakes of descriptions of the recordings as needed. He is also digitizing tapes from the surrounding villages of the North Slope area: Wainwright, Atqasuk, Nuiqsut, Barter Island, Anaktuvuk Pass, Point Lay, and Point Hope.


Leona Okakok


Born and raised in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, Leona Okakok was married to Rex A. Okakok, Sr. for 56 years. She has five children; she adopted two more and raised a foster child. Leona has a love for language and cross-cultural studies. She is the author of Puiguitkaat and “Serving the Purpose of Education,” (Harvard Educational Review, Dec. 1989). She helped translate The Meaning of Ice. She attended Sheldon Jackson College and University of Alaska, Fairbanks. 


Jason Russell


Born and raised outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, into a dog mushing family, Jason Russell is married to Dawna Raidmae and has one child. With a love for all things historical, Jason has spent the last four years on a variety of language preservation, digitization, and cataloging activities. He received his MLIS degree through Southern Mississippi, and bachelors degree in English through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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