Among the few things that those of us from beneath the Arctic Circle are likely to know about polar Alaska is that the Inuit peoples have dozens of words for snow. It’s such a darling and oft-repeated fact that one wonders if it’s legend. Yet inside a warm, 5th-grade classroom in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, on the edge of the Chukchi Sea — it’s 12 below zero outside and the wind is scouring the tundra — a group of 19 students sit at rapt attention, copying their new vocabulary words onto loose-leaf paper: the many Iñupiaq words for snow.
“Qanataag,” the teacher writes on the board at the front of the class. The students repeat it back to her in a ragged chorus.
“Good,” she says. “Qanataag means ‘ice or snow overhang.’”
“Apua,” she writes next. It means “snow on the ground.”
The lesson continues. Nutagaq: freshly fallen, unpacked snow. Silliq: snow made crusty and hard by the wind.
This is one of three classrooms at Ipalook Elementary School that teach Iñupiaq, the language of the Iñupiat people who are native to this flat, frozen stretch of North America. In the North Slope Borough School District, of which Ipalook is a part, Iñupiaq is a required class for all students, kindergarten through 12th grade. Even non-Iñupiaq students — about a quarter of the North Slope population — must take a course in Iñupiaq, the language of the place where they are being raised. Thanks to the wounds of history and the pressures of modern life, Iñupiaq is fast disappearing, not unlike the sea ice that historically surrounds the North Slope for the majority of the year.