Nunavut trio aim to produce Inuinnaqtun dictionary from historic documents
“It would be such an honour if we continue the work, and actually finish it"
Sometimes a project falls into your lap and kind of changes your life.
That’s what happened to Millie Kuliktana, Inuinnaqtun language champion and educator from Kugluktuk, when she was in Edmonton for medical treatment in the spring of 2015.
“I was very taken aback. It brought tears to my eyes, having been given such trust,” said Kuliktana.
She’s talking about more than 100 fragile pages of Inuinnaqtun words, some handwritten, some typed, which were given to her a year ago by the family of the late Anglican minister John (Jack) Sperry, who died in 2012, but is famous for his translations of the Bible, hymn and psalms into Inuinnaqtun.
Sperry, a respected Christian leader, served parishes in Kugluktuk — then Coppermine — and Fort Smith in the 1950s and 1960s, and later served as an Anglican bishop from 1973 to 1990.
The homemade dictionary had been passed on to Sperry by his predecessor, Anglican Rev. Herbert Girling, who began compiling the words in the early 1900s from the Copper Inuit he served.
When Sperry died in Hay River, Feb. 11, 2012, his family went through his possessions and came across Girling’s Inuinnaqtun dictionary. His family members chose to give the dictionary to Kuliktana, trusting that she would know what to do with it.
The first thing Kuliktana has to do is find a way to reproduce working copies of the fragile 100-year-old pages so the originals can be preserved intact.
Then she, along with Inuinnait Services Ltd. business partners Edna Elias and Susie Evyagotailak, will find a way to publish the work in book form, so Inuinnaqtun speakers, and those who want to learn, can have a historical record of their language.
Some of those words are old, Kuliktana told Nunatsiaq News, and not really in use anymore. These include nearly forgotten Inuit place names, kinship terms and lists of terminology used at the time in small Inuit camps.
“A lot are just life words, actual nouns and verbs of what was in their lives at the time,” Kuliktana said. “Some of the actions would pertain to dog teams, modes of travel, and how they went about their iglu village.”
In that way, the collection is like a time capsule, she said, preserving the history of a language in serious decline.
“It would be such an honour if we continue the work, and actually finish it, so the people of the North can have a document they can use for their children and for their families, and for education as well,” Kuliktana said.
With a $10,000 grant from a BHP Billiton Diamonds Inuit benefits agreement, Kuliktana and her partners will take a trip to Toronto in March to meet Anglican church archivists and the Anglican church’s publishing arm to talk about next steps.
Kuliktana said when she contacted officials with the Anglican diocesan archives, they were thrilled about the dictionary. An archivist was already working on a Girling project, so the timing couldn’t have been better.
Kuliktana said she will have a better idea of timeline and scope of the project after the meeting next month in Toronto. Then she’ll have to find funding to see the book through to its publication.
She’s hoping to track down the descendants of the Copper Inuit who taught Inuinnaqtun to Girling and Sperry, as well as contact local elders, to gather input and ensure the language terms used are correct because some of the words are spelled phonetically.
While the dictionary doesn’t list the language contributors, there is a long history of occupation in the area — anthropologists such as Diamond Jenness recorded lists of Copper Inuit families who lived in the western Arctic.
Kuliktana is hoping to reproduce the original words, as they were handwritten or typed up, and then, on the facing page, the modern word or term, written in Roman orthography.
Then she has to find a home for the original documents. The Sperry family has asked that she not give up ownership of the historic papers so Kuliktana said she has to track down an institution willing to hold and preserve them on her behalf.
“It’s overwhelming. I want to honour the work that the Anglican ministry has done to start this project, to be the first to start collecting Inuit terminology 100 years ago.”