Joan Naviyuk Kane: Some people call King Island the heart of a mountain.
My ancestors survived on King Island for millennia, but our language is facing the pressure of tremendous erasure. But I’m using my voice, my writing, and my family to preserve my heritage.

[Joan speaking in Inupiaq]

I am a writer, a teacher, and a mother.

King Island is a beautiful granitic rock that rises steeply out of the Bering Sea.

[Joan’s children practice Inupiaq]

There are, I think at last official count, between 100 and 150 speakers of the King Island dialect of Inupiaq.

The language itself is important to me because my grandfather didn’t ever speak a word of English. My mother, during the assimilation era, as a boarding school student, she was physically punished for speaking the Inupaiq language. She insisted to people that King Islanders had to keep our language alive. But also to honor the long tradition of our languages and our cultures.

[Joan’s son singing in Inupiaq]

I started writing poetry, by hearing poetry before I knew it was a poem.

Having King Island songs and the language in me, is lyric, I think has been really important to my sensibilities as a poet, without knowing, in a way, that it was different.

I would say that I didn’t really start writing poems sincerely until I was an undergraduate at Harvard. I had the experience of having my work recognized early on, with my first book, which allowed me to write subsequent five or six books of poetry.

As Inupiaq, though people we may be living far from our ancestral homelands we still have that connection to place and to each other through language. There are so many things changing, I think, for people in the arctic. There’s an opportunity to really look at literature as a way to bridge divides, to speak with their family and their communities about languages that we still have access to and have not lost.

This poem is called "Ilu"

Uluaq, ukak, niaquŋ—

Inukguruŋa.

Panik aakaa

Avvak.

Uyaġauramik.

Maatnami imma pitaiqutuq.

Kurgit, nuġi, tagiuq—

Akkuni,

Atniqtuŋa.

Nalurusi.

Aakaa puuyanatuŋa.

[Translation]

Cheek, tongue, headache—

I am a human being.

Daughter mother

Asunder.

A shard of rock.

Now what was is no more.

Rivers, wind, salt—

A while ago

I got hurt.

You were all unaware.

Mother I forgot.