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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Films Tells Inupiaq History
by TAMAR BEN-YOSEF - The Arctic Sounder

All filmmakers would likely agree that it is a good sign when their film has run out in stores, even if it's not always properly paid for. Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson, a Barrow, Alaska, filmmaker, took it as a compliment when her Inupiaq film "The Duck-In" was snatched off the shelves. But for Edwardson, the film's popularity is second to its importance.

"The Duck-In," Edwardson's pilot educational film, and her newest "Nipaa Ilitqusipta - The Voice of Our Spirit," are both part of an Inupiaq history series that will be included in the curriculum and used in classes across the North Slope. A third film is on its way.

Until recently, the history of the Inupiaq language and people was told by everyone but the Inupiat themselves, according to Jana Harcharek, Director of Inupiaq Education for the North Slope Borough School District. Harcharek and Edwardson have worked collaboratively on the history series since 2004 with a grant from the Alaska Native Education Program.

"The pieces (films) tell the history from our perspective," Harcharek said. "It's interesting analyzing that perspective as opposed to what has been written about us."

Both of Edwardson's films touch on important issues in the lives of Inupiaq communities. In "The Duck-In," Edwardson documents the people's successful protest in the early1960s against new federal regulations that interfered with subsistence hunting.

Her second film, "The Voice of Our Spirit," presents viewers with individuals, young and old, who struggle with the loss of language in their own personal way.

The film opens with scenes of a an Inupiaq boy sitting on a windowsill and images of a North Slope village covered in fog, with the sound of a modern rap song that speaks about like in the 49th state.

"For a long time now I have been wondering why I don't speak my language," says Dora "Aluniq" Brower of Barrow in the film's opening minutes.

"I would always hear it around me because my parents and my grandparents were speaking, but when it came to us children they would speak to us in English. It wasn't expected of me to speak back in Inupiaq."

"The film chronicles a history that spans 150 years," said Edwardson during a video call from her current home in Melbourne, Australia. "It starts with the epidemics, then the missionaries and the boarding school. It provides a historical understanding of how it happened that no one speaks the language."

Edwardson grew up in Barrow and is the daughter of George "Saggan" Edwardson, an Inupiat story-teller and Native political activist who was raised in a subsistence lifestyle. Her mother, Debbie Edwardson, was a journalist.

"I don't speak Inupiaq, which is why this film was such a personal journey for me," Edwardson said. "Now that I am married, my feelings are about how I will teach my kids when I can't speak it myself."

From the perspective of a parent, Harcharek, now focused on incorporating Inupiaq into student curriculums, admits in the film that she too is guilty of not speaking the language to her children. She depicts the children as victims of a generations-old tragedy.

"I think they're deprived of a birthright," Harcharek says in the film. "They have the right by birth to know their own language. I wasn't very successful as a mother at using it enough at home. You can slap yourself up side one and down the other but that's not going to fix it. So I do the best that I can and that's what we all can do."

Until now, the School District never taught Inupiaq language and culture in a systematic way, according to Harcharek, most likely because no materials existed. That is already changing thanks to programs and a curriculum developed by Harcharek and fellow educators. Edwardson's films are a big part of the process.

An Anchorage anthropologist, historian and curriculum developer, Patricia Partnow, is currently working with the films to develop learning guides that will accompany them in classes and place them in context with the history the students are taught.

When writing the guide, Partnow links the film to worldwide historic events and looks for a way to "hook" the target audience, in this case the adolescent students, by focusing on issues most interesting to them.

"The idea is to find ways that this one thing can not just teach about this one event," Partnow said.

Social justice is a big issue among teenagers, she said. Linking the films to other events, people and theories helps make the guide non-linear and more dynamic.

"I had fun with 'The Duck-In," linking it to Gandhi, apartheid, civil disobedience and philosophy," she said.

The first draft of "The Duck-In" guide is complete and work on the "Voice of Our Spirit" guide will begin in the near future.

Partnow and Harcharek have spent the past six years developing curriculums for the Inupiaq Education Program.

While the films will mainly serve as educational tools for both Inupiaq and non-Native viewers, they are also the beginning of a much larger project Edwardson plans to develop.

Edwradson's husband, David Vadiveloo, a film director, producer and writer, has developed a method of working with marginalized youths with the use of media. Edwardson reported that seeing the projects in action was an incredible experience. She and her husband are looking into ways to incorporate a similar project in Barrow.

Edwardson's vision includes creating a "Qargi" - a traditional community house of gathering - in a very non-traditional way. The Qargi will be a place where all media created on the North Slope will originate from. It will serve as a training ground and film production house to attract youths to create a new way of story-telling.

"I have no problem with Inupiaq rap," Edwardson said. "We need new ways of communicating and sharing, otherwise we will all become a museum piece."

A similar project is under way in Kotzebue. Edwardson said she wants to partner with the neighboring borough to create an online Native network that will be attached to the borough's media facilities and will link with other Native networks around the world.

Though targeted at youths and young adults, a board of elders will take an active role in overseeing the productions' content.

"We have to get back to honoring their leadership and wisdom," Edwardson said. "It's easy with modern technology to put that aside, but now more than ever we need them."

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