Leena Evic, language advocate

The 20th century was unkind to Inuit language and culture, but now this educator is revitalizing them with digital tools. Interview by Sarah Jane Keller

March 31, 2012

Courtesy of Leena Evic

Canada’s largest territory is almost entirely above the tree line, nearly roadless, and outlined by bays, inlets and fjords. Most of the 30,000 people who call Nunavut home are Inuit, descended from ancestors that survived in the Arctic for thousands of years. But the 20th century brought rapid change that threatened Inuit traditions, notably the culture's rich language.

Leena Evic says that when she was a child, her family lived a traditional, nomadic life on the land, following the seasons to their sustaining hunting grounds. They sent letters to other camps written in Inuktitut, using a symbolic writing system introduced by missionaries. But during the 1950s, her family was swept into a mass relocation of Inuit off the land and into permanent settlements. Like many other children, Evic went away to a government-run boarding school. The relocations divided families. The Inuit lifestyle of self-sufficiency—and the Inuktitut language—began to erode.

Nunavut, meaning “our land,” was carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999, restoring Inuit autonomy and land rights. Today, the territorial government oversees a land area one-fifth the size of Canada and is a major client for the Microsoft Inuktitut Interface. Evic, now 55, founded the center that adapted Microsoft Office to Inuktitut. Based in Nunavut’s capital on Baffin Island, the Pirurvik Centre is a company working to revitalize Inuit language and culture and to bring Inuit language into computing. It just released the first Inuktitut language app for Apple mobile devices.

At the February 2012 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Evic spoke about Inuit history and the urgency of bringing Inuktitut language into the mainstream. After a two-day journey across Canada, she shared her perspectives from above the Arctic Circle with SciCom’s Sarah Jane Keller.

Could you talk about how you founded the Pirurvik Centre?

I’m a teacher by training. In the mid-1970s I became an Inuktitut teacher for elementary levels, and after that I became an Inuktitut instructor at a teacher’s college. At McGill University I took language-related studies to bring back home after I graduated. Through all the career changes, I’ve always had this strong aspiration, a vision and passion, to see a center that’s just totally focused on language and culture and wellbeing.

I always add wellbeing because in my language we call it makimaniq. Makimaniq means I am confident in my personal development and economically, socially, and academically confident. I would add intellectually, too. It means I’m quite a whole person.

I truly believed that it was a vision that would have to happen from scratch. My vision for the company was to create things of quality at a high level. Little did I know that during our very first year of existence, we would start on the Microsoft project. That was pretty high level indeed.

"Inuit are naturally good scientists—we’ve had to be. But if that knowledge isn’t passed down to a younger generation, it will be lost."

How did Microsoft become involved?

Microsoft did and still does this localization initiative project for some indigenous minority languages in different countries. They approached us because we were a company focusing on Inuit language, but also because Nunavut is its own territory and 85 percent of us are Inuktitut speakers. We partnered with our government for our initial support because they would be the major clients for our system.

In your session, we heard that publicizing indigenous languages is sometimes controversial within a community. Have you experienced that in your work?

Not at all. When we first got the project going we established a terminology committee because we needed a base glossary. It was more comfortable for us to see certain words dealt with in a group setting—terms that were going to be a little bit challenging, like "Internet" and "email." We didn’t have those new terms at all yet.

I call mixed language a silent killer of language. Instead of being very fluent and articulate in your language, you start to use too many foreign terms that you already have words for, but it becomes a habit. The terminology committee dealt with those kinds of terms, and it has been great. I felt very comfortable using those terms because it came from a collective point of view.

Were you were an advocate for your language from a young age?

Yes, because I love writing. I used to love writing even way before I went to school. The syllabic writing system got introduced in the very beginning of the 1900s, and we were all literate in syllabics way before the schools were established. We would use any kind of piece of paper when we would write. It could be from a sugar package, but we would write to our relatives in other camps.

I can even say that I had a great grandmother who learned the system in the early 1900s, and she wrote her journals every day. I’m also very happy to state that I have my Dad’s journals from the early 1960s until the time he passed away. A lot of those journals were written when we lived on the land.

The Microsoft localization is almost a natural extension of the communication that you used when you lived on the land.

Absolutely. And everyone uses the computer these days, right? We’re all in front of the computer, and what better way for Inuit than when they have their own Inuktitut interface. It’s quite natural actually. I haven’t used the English interface for a long time.

Do you think teaching Inuktitut to both indigenous and non-native speakers at the Pirurvik Centre has brought your community together?

It certainly has. Coming from that context, you can better understand and appreciate the language and the culture if you are a bureaucrat and a civil servant. And it’s great if I can speak to you in my language as well.

We have so many indigenous cultures around the world, we have so many mainstream cultures around the world, and I truly believe that each culture is there to teach others. I truly believe that as indigenous cultures we have an inherent right to use our language in learning, teaching, and expressing our worldviews. That’s why I’m an advocate for my language. It’s our identity as well.

Could you talk about how speaking one’s own language contributes to a sense of wellbeing?

If you don’t know how to speak your first language, you will start to feel like you are missing something. It’s my own personal observation as a teacher, that Inuit who can’t speak Inuktitut often start pondering about it around their mid-20s. I think it becomes a question of who we are. Then you start approaching that age when you have children and grandchildren, and you get hit again with, "How am I going to pass down my cultural knowledge?" If the opportunities are not there, you don’t become fulfilled. If the opportunities are there, then it’s never too late.

That’s what we’re trying to create, that opportunity so it’s never too late for anyone to learn his or her original language. I believe you become more whole when you learn where you come from in expressive ways.

What can you express in Inuktitut that you can’t fully express in English?

I think emotions are good examples for the way we express differently between Inuktitut and English. We have emotional expressions that are very dear to us as Inuit that are just not represented in English. In translation, we’re missing out on the different types of expression to be really true to what we’re stating.

For example, we create special aqausiit for our children, from the time when they are babies. Aqausiq has no equivalence in English. The closest might be lullaby, but that's not even the same thing. Our aqausiq involves expression of love and affection, and a child is given his or her own aqausiq. That child recognizes the song every time and relates to it as something that is between her or him and the person who created and sings it. I may make an aqausiq for my son that but that aqausiq is something that bonds us with mutual understanding.

Historically, swear words did not exist in Inuktitut. I still don't know of any today.

Another session at the AAAS meeting featured indigenous knowledge and Arctic science. How can language revitalization play a role in that?

Inuit are naturally good scientists—we’ve had to be. But if that knowledge isn’t passed down to a younger generation, it will be lost.

Scientists need indigenous intermediaries who are very knowledgeable about the environment. Those intermediaries are the ones who need to learn as quickly as possible before all the knowledge keepers are gone. We’re an oral culture, and most of the things that are written about Inuit usually are in English by outside researchers. But we also need to have our own literature, including the knowledge and wisdom that is still held by these keepers of the knowledge and who are the greatest stewards of our environment.

Could you share some of your experience with boarding school? Were you able to use your language then?

Mine was a unique situation because the home at the boarding school had Inuit caretakers. We could speak our language in the residence, even though we were not encouraged to use it in the classroom.

But when our language was not allowed or was discouraged, the kids that went through the boarding schools or residential schools either forgot the spoken language or lost much of it. The ones that went to school at a really young age were denied the opportunity to learn the writing system.

Teacher training in Nunavut and in the Northwest Territories was introduced in the 1970s, and that has been a saving grace for Inuktitut literacy in the classroom. We taught all the subject areas in our language.

You played a beautiful recording during your talk. Could you tell me about your music?

I’ve always loved music and it seemed to run in my family. When we got relocated, we had a mission hospital run by the diocese of England. The nurses and even the doctors spoke our language. Many of the nurses had musical talent, and they created a choir in the community. I love singing; I created many songs in the classroom for children, and I have recorded a children’s CD.

Music was big in the classroom when I was first a teacher. It’s just not the same in schools today. It’s something that should be introduced to kids at a very young age because it’s a therapeutic break from other pressures.

You mentioned that you loved growing up on the land. With all of your work and travel, do you still find time to make it out there?

We’re still a culture that enjoys living each season to the fullest. I love to camp every summer. I put up my tent in June and don’t take it down until fall. My work is very virtual, even when I’m here I’m working on my localization project. Sometimes I can even work when I’m on the land.


Sarah Jane Keller, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned her bachelor's degree in biology at the University of Montana and her master's degree in earth and planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico. Her internships at UCSC have included the Stanford University News Service, The Salinas Californian, and Wired.com. This summer, she will work as a science writing intern at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

© 2012 Sarah Jane Keller