One Word at a Time: Reclaiming and Relearning Inuvialuktun Taalrumiq (Christina Gruben King)

One Word at a Time: Reclaiming and Relearning Inuvialuktun  Taalrumiq (Christina Gruben King)

Taalrumiq is an Inuvialuit and Gwich’in Fashion Designer, Artist and Digital Content Creator originally from Tuktuuyaqtuuq, whose work is inspired by and highlights Inuvialuit culture, language and history. 

February is Indigenous Languages Month in the NWT. According to the GNWT, “This is a month to celebrate the diverse Indigenous languages in the Northwest Territories and to encourage everyone to learn about them and use with pride.”

Growing up Inuvialuit

As a contemporary Inuvialuk and Gwich’in person from the NWT, I grew up in Inuvialuit culture, hearing Inuvialuktun spoken mainly by Elders in my home community of Tuktuuyaqtuuq. They spoke Sallirmiutun, the coastal dialect of Inuvialuktun, the language of the Inuvialuit or Inuit of the Western Arctic. Sallirmiutun is spoken by inhabitants of Tuktuuyaqtuuq, Paulatuuq and Ikaahuk (Sachs Harbour). Another dialect of Inuvialuktun is Ummarmiutun, spoken by Inuuvingmiut (People of Inuvik) and Akłaarvingmiut (People of Aklavik)  and Kangiryuarmiutun, a dialect of Innuinaqtun, spoken by Innuinait or people of Ulukhaktok. My Gwich’in language exposure was mainly from radio programs and visits to Inuvik where I heard Gwich’in people and friends speak. 

English as a first language

My grandparents believed that teaching their children English would better prepare them for a rapidly changing world, as we know that Indigenous children were severely punished for speaking their native languages in residential schools. Both of my parents are residential school survivors, removed from their families and losing out on opportunities to practice and live their culture, language and Indigenous way of life, educated and groomed for a western way of life. They, too, were raised to speak English, though Invuialuktun was still spoken in my Inuvialuit grandparents’ home. Because of this, the previous generation were unable to fully transmit their Indigenous languages to their children. Despite these challenges, many of our adult population are passively fluent, meaning they can understand Inuvialuktun, but have difficulty speaking it. 

Even though I grew up in an Inuvialuit community, my first language is English. Like many Inuvialuit I was given an English name on my birth certificate (Christina) and my traditional name was given in the customary Inuvialuit way and not listed on government documentation. It took me many years to be proud of and reclaim my traditional name, Taalrumiq. Though it is an anglicized spelling, I began using my traditional name in my professional work and am appreciative and humbled for this gift of my great-grandmother's name, given to me by Elders when I was born. It took some practice to learn to pronounce it properly.  

As an adult I now understand that the rapid loss of language  is not our fault,  yet many of us carry the shame of not being able to fluently speak our own language.  A huge credit to my Mom was that she would speak Inuvialuktun phrases daily, and get me to repeat them till I pronounced them correctly. This was her way of transmitting what she could, and why I can pronounce Inuvialuktun words and have an ear for our language. I make many mistakes and consider myself at a baby or toddler stage of learning Inuvialuktun.

But it is time to heal, let go of that shame, and take responsibility to reclaim and awaken the languages that are sleeping on our tongues; evident with how many of us speak English with an Inuvialuktun or Gwich’in accent. I used to feel embarrassed about my accent, especially after moving to the city. Now I understand that I am only a generation or two away from speaking fluent Inuvialuktun, and the blood memory and the muscles in my tongue instinctively remember how to form Inuvialuktun words. I also realize that the structure of English is completely different from Inuvialuktun. The emphasis on syllables in a word and sentence structure are nearly opposite of English, hence our unique accents.

Reclaiming identity and language

Throughout my adult life, I have been on a journey of coming to terms with my identity, loss of language and culture, and trying to find my place in the world. This became more urgent when I had children of my own, as the longing to pass down everything I know and understand about Inuvialuktun language and culture became stronger. 

Incorporate language in daily life

I make it a point every day to wake my children and greet them in Inuvialuktun, calling them by their Inuvialuit names, and saying “pigpagiyipkin” (I love you), so the very first words they hear are their own language. Often they will sleepily repeat the words. This is music to my ears, as they are developing the skill to speak their language. We also incorporate words and phrases in our daily life, such as “Quyanainni (Thank you),” “Amiuniin (You’re welcome),” “Amaamaga (Mom),” “Aqqali! (My goodness!),” and “Uva (Here).”

I love those moments when I somewhat understand Inuvialuktun dialogue when watching Inuvialuit Communications Society’s videos of Elders or listening to CBC’s Tusaavik Radio with Shukŕaaluk (Dodie Malegana).

Even hearing and learning different dialects is useful. There are so many similarities that learning whatever dialect you have access to is useful and a win for our language revival.

Indigenous Language Resources

Nothing can compare to sitting with, hearing and conversing with our Elders, who are fluent  and understand the nuances underlying the art that is our Indigenous languages. We are also fortunate to have many print and online resources at our fingertips, such as social media, blogs, Indigenous language dictionaries and books, recorded audio and video of our Elders who bridged the old way of life to life today, dedicated social media language pages, cultural resource centres, radio and tv programs, even non-Indigenous researchers’ academic papers and research projects: all these make relearning and reclaiming our language feel like a safe and supported journey. It’s necessary for us to commit and take the time to practice everyday, to regain and retain our language, one word at a time.  

Other ways of relearning our language that I notice gaining in popularity are people reclaiming and using their traditional or Indigenous names on social media profiles, referring to our communities by their proper Indigenous names, and little things like ending an email with Quyanainni (thank you), or introducing yourself in your own language on zoom meetings.  All of these are deliberate and powerful acts of resistance and pride that give our language life, energy, visibility and the impetus to continue moving forward.

Digital content

When I first began creating digital content, I noticed powerful and engaging Indigenous content from other nations all over the world: creators showcasing their cultures including language content. For a while I waited, hoping that someone, somewhere would create short format video content relevant to Inuvialuit, Inuvialuit culture or do the trends from our point of view, but I really wasn’t finding any. This inspired me to create my own content, showing my art and fashion and using Inuvialuktun words and creating skits.  The response was overwhelmingly positive. This showed me that there is a demand for authentic content for us and by us.  If we use available technology including popular apps we can reach others, teach others and help bring our language back to fluency. It was exciting when my TikTok video on how to properly pronounce my community’s name was widely shared.

I struggle with confidence in speaking my language; I make mistakes speaking and spelling, conjugating my verbs and recalling words and phrases under pressure. As a result, Inuvialuktun language videos comprise a small portion of my overall content, but I have a strong desire to create more. I have to remember that we don’t shame babies for making mistakes when learning to speak, so why would we shame people who are relearning our own language forcibly removed from us? We learn from our mistakes and if we support each other, gently correct each other, and encourage each other, we can be confident in our learning and ability to speak our language. I have great love and respect for Elders who speak to me, message me, or simply comment on my social media the correct way to say and/or spell Inuvialuktun words that I use on my social media posts. This shows they care, and they want to ensure our language is accurately used and transmitted.

My Inuvialuktun language TikTok videos here:

Is it Ok to learn Indigenous languages that aren’t our own?

In 2022, I auditioned for a short film co-created by Indigenous filmmakers Sadetło Scott and Heather Heinrichs, titled Nihtâwikihew (She gives birth).  What’s unique about this film was that it would be filmed in Nihtâwikihew or Cree language, and the film’s subject matter was near and dear to my heart. I was selected for the supporting role of Elderly Auntie Mary and it would be my debut into the glamorous world of acting!  So, during the pandemic, I began taking online zoom lessons with Cree language expert and educator Simon Bird to learn the Cree script. It was a whole new experience for me, and having knowledge of my own Inuvialuktun language and pronunciations really helped with learning and pronouncing Cree words.  I expressed concern to Simon that, since I’m not Cree, did I even have a right to learn, and would people be receptive of me speaking Cree language in the film? He was very supportive, and assured me it was ok and that historically we know that many of our people spoke other Indigenous languages of neighbouring tribes. The important thing for me was to practice and make it believable that my character was a fluent Cree speaker.  I was fortunate to be invited to the screening of Nihtâwikihew at the 2023 Yellowknife International Film Festival. It was truly a unique experience being on the big screen, speaking an Indigenous language seemingly fluent. I have yet to hear more feedback from subsequent screenings, but the initial response was positive.  I am glad I had the opportunity to learn some Cree, and now I follow Cree language creators to continue to learn.  

Is it Ok to learn an Indigenous language if I’m not Indigenous?

Yes! It is wonderful when non-Indigenous people make a sincere effort to learn words, phrases and/or become fluent in our language(s). This shows respect and a willingness to learn. Each language learner is different, and for some non-Indigenous people it may be easier to learn an Indigenous language. They don’t have the residual and ongoing impacts of colonization, racism, intergenerational trauma, loss of identity and associated shame that Indigenous people live with and struggle to overcome when relearning our own languages. Something to remember is that when it comes to learning an Indigenous language, you are a guest and the expectation is you act accordingly. Teachers and Elders generously share their knowledge, time, and experience, and even give non-Indigenous people Indigenous names as a sign of respect and honour. Again, this is a gift, and it’s sometimes complicated as many Indigenous people don’t even have traditional names.  Another piece of advice when learning Indigenous languages: slow down.  English can have a fast rhythm and pace, whereas Inuvialuktun, for example, has drawn out vowels and syllables. The meaning can change depending on how fast or slow you pronounce a syllable, word or phrase.  If you’re unsure about calling an Indigenous person by their traditional name, simply ask! For me personally, any effort to pronounce and refer to me by my traditional name is appreciated.  

Suggestions for learning

Learning and relearning language is a lifelong journey. The important thing is to never give up. Continue to push past those moments of self-doubt and uncertainty, and relish those moments when you understand even a portion of what a fluent speaker is saying.  You’re making progress and your grandparents and ancestors would be so proud of you!

Here are simple suggestions for you to reclaim and relearn your language:

1.    Use your traditional name. It is a gift! Use it on social media and when introducing yourself. Speak to others using their traditional names, too.
2.    Sit with an Elder and ask questions.
3.    Practice introducing yourself in your language. “Uvanga atira… (My name is...)”
4.    Use Indigenous language phrases everyday:  “Aulaktaa! (Let’s go!)”.
5.    Listen to CBC radio programs in your language.
6.    Listen to music in your language (Elisapie, Riit, Juurini & Beatrice Deer are some of my favourite Inuktitut language singers).
7.    Find books, cd’s, music and other print resources relevant to your language from your cultural resource centre. 

Content Creators and online resources relevant to Inuvialuktun and Gwich'in Dinjii Zhuh:

Taalrumiq Inuvialuit and Gwich’in content - art, fashion, language, culture, humour:  and all social media platforms @Taalrumiq

Inuvialuktun language page Tea & Maktak by Qusilruna (Alice-Julia Thrasher)

Inuvialuktun, Sallirmiutun dialect by Kivvaq (Nikita Larter):

Inuvialuit Communications Society YouTube Channel:

Gwich’in Language Revival Campaign #SpeakGwichinToMe by Jacey Firth-Hagen: /

Quyanainni! (Thank you!)

Taima! (Done/Enough!)


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