Sheena Adams is partnering with Inuvialuit elders to change this, by creating a vocabulary around renewable energy in their language of Inuvialuktun. Adams worked with artist Emma Segal to create illustrations that represent the new energy terms. The English translation of the words on this image is: Solar Panels, a flat piece resembling a window/mirror placed on top of a building to collect electricity from the sun to power the house. Graphic: Sheena Adams and Emma Segal

By Laura Poppick
17 October 2017

(Smithsonian) – Canada’s Northwest Territories comprise one of the fastest-warming regions of the Arctic. Here, residents see spring arrive weeks earlier than it used to, while the ground beneath their homes thaws and slumps. Yet while much of the world talks about solar power, wind energy and other sustainable energy technologies to slow climate warming, Inuvialuit communities can't do the same—at least not in their indigenous language, because the words for these options don't exist.

Sheena Adams is partnering with Inuvialuit elders to change this, by creating a vocabulary around renewable energy in their language of Inuvialuktun. About 20 percent of roughly 3,100 Inuvialuit people speak this language conversationally today, with most also speaking English. This means the project has twin goals: to draw attention to renewable energy options, as well as to help revitalize a declining language, says Adams, a graduate student in environment and sustainability at Royal Roads University in British Columbia.

“There is a big push to help restore those languages because, like a lot of indigenous languages in the world, we are losing them,” she says. “So I thought this would be a good way to support that movement while promoting renewable energy and conservation.”

Adams also works as the regional energy project coordinator with the sustainable energy nonprofit Arctic Energy Alliance based in Inuvik, a town of about 3,300 people that includes a substantial Inuvialuit population. Last Spring, Adams reached out to 10 elders from this town and five others in the vicinity to tackle the project together in Inuvik. “When we started this, we didn’t know if they’d be able to create all these words,” Adams says. “Sometimes modernization can’t happen.”

But Inuvialuit people are deeply connected to the land, so they already had existing words to work with that made their language naturally adaptable to modernization through this route, Adams says. “I’m not sure it would have been so easy if you were talking about cancer or something like that,” she adds. Through a workshop that lasted several days, the group was able to create a total of 186 terms across three dialects, including annugihiut anugihiuttin for ‘wind turbine’ and siqiniqmin aullan for ‘solar panels.’

Beverly Amos, an Inuvik resident who works at the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre and helped Adams on the project, emphasizes that the concept of conservation has always been central to her culture. “At one time, before contact with the Europeans or other races, we had our own form of conservation for anything, including energy,” says Amos, whose organization works to preserve and rejuvenate the Inuvialuktun language.

That means that words around sustainable living do exist—they just need to be updated to fit the modern technologies, Amos explains. “It’s just finding them back and finding the best way to use them for this day and age.” [more]

Inventing a Vocabulary to Help Inuit People Talk About Climate Change

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