Monica Ittusardjuat, 68, has been working for over 50 years to preserve and teach Inuktitut and earlier this month she was presented with the 2019 Nunavut Council of the Federation Literacy Award.
Ittusardjuat was born premature at seven months in an igloo, in a winter camp called Akkimaniq. Today, the closest community to this inhabited camp is Iglulik.
From humble beginnings in the North, Ittusardjuat survived attending three residential schools located in Chesterfield Inlet, Churchill, Man. and St. Norbert, Man., working her way to earning a master’s degree in education.
She explains that preserving Inuktitut is important to her because it was almost lost.
“We weren’t allow to speak Inuktitut in the classroom,” said Ittusardjuat.
While attending high school in Manitoba, Ittusardjuat was the only Inuk person at the school. Unable to speak Inuktitut with others, she realized the language would be lost.
From then on, she promised herself to learn and practice Inuktitut.
“I realized, when I left the North, how unique our culture is and how nobody else in the world speaks Inuktitut.”
Over the years, she has encouraged both Inuit and non-Inuit people to learn Inuktitut because “there’s so much knowledge and culture in the language.”
Ittusardjuat explains there are certain words that are only used “out on the land” and not in communities. For example, there are specific words to describe the sea, plants, or ice conditions.
“Also (there are) different words for snow that you cannot really translate into one word into English.”
According to Ittusardjuat, these unique words provide insight into Inuit culture and “a gateway to becoming part of the culture.”
“We cannot lose the language,” she said. “It’s part of who we are, it’s our language, and it’s important to be able to express ourselves in the language of our culture.”
Ittusardjuat has taught students at elementary and high school levels, as well as at Nunavut Arctic College.
She has also worked as a language and culture instructor for Iqaluit’s Nunavut Teacher Education Program.
As a National Inuit Language Coordinator at Inuit Tapariit Kanatami, she aimed to create orthography standards that could accommodate all dialects of Inuktut.
Currently, Ittusardjuat is the senior Inuktitut editor at Inhabit Education, a Nunavut educational publishing company.
She is responsible for overseeing all language materials for an Inuktitut first-language literacy program for Nunavut. She has helped to create materials in various subjects including: math, science and social sciences, which will help Nunavummiut learn and practice their language.
“I felt so humble,” said the former teacher, thinking about her award.
Ittusardjuat says that she does not even possess half the knowledge of her parents.
“I don’t deserve this (award),” she said. “I will never know as much as my parents did.”
But her intentions were simply to teach students the “little” she does know.
“I didn’t want Inuktitut to become extinct. It should live on. We shouldn’t lose it.”
She thinks Inuktitut will live on because of a cultural revival from her people who are proud of their language.
“It is a beautiful language,” said Ittusardjuat.