Monday, April 27, 2009

Inupiaq Voices

I watched a documentary recently that rather blew my mind: Nipaa Ilitqusipta - The Voices of Our Spirit, produced and directed by Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson. The film screened in NYC and features the Inupiaq community in Barrow, Alaska. It studies the history that led to the decline of their language. Personal interviews illuminate the struggle to reclaim a language whose loss began a few decades ago when Native American children were pulled from their homes and forced to attend assimilationist boarding schools. In that environment, they were denied their traditions and made to feel shame about their culture. Consequently, those indoctrinated couldn’t bring themselves to teach their language to their own children.

It’s a uniquely Inupiaq narrative, yet, by chasing the story of one specific culture in one small corner of the world, the film touches on universal themes of home, family, self, and the search for identity. I sat, slightly weeping throughout the film because it hit pretty close to home.

I admire the film’s ability to touch emotions in someone who has no knowledge or experience of the Inupiaq culture. I was utterly caught up in the narratives, and I felt that the film was somehow telling my story, or at least part of it. The part that wishes I spoke my father's language, or my maternal grandmother's. The part that wants to travel to far reaches of the world and feel that I belong.

I'm finding I'm not alone in this feeling. It doesn't seem to matter what culture we have in our backgrounds - young Americans of many flavors are searching. Wandering. Hungry. Something has happened. Something has kept us from learning these truths. Something has happened, and we are being robbed. I wonder if we spend our entire lives hunting for puzzle pieces – a collection of words, thoughts, feelings, experiences that’ll tell us who we are and what it all means. I watch a film like this and I realize that, no matter how far I’ve come, I’m still searching. There’s a history that I carry, which I feel, but that’s ultimately unknown to me.

Where else should I be looking?

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