Miali Coley-Sudlovenick's Zoom class.
CNN  — 

Like many Indigenous people of North America, Miali Coley-Sudlovenick fears that her native language is dying.

European colonization left Inuit struggling to preserve their culture and tongue in an environment of horror and abuse, she says.

That’s why she has taken to the internet to teach Inuktitut, one of the dialects spoken by the Inuit, to her people and anyone else who wants to learn. She believes it is vital to her culture’s survival.

“Asking why this is important is just like asking why water is important. We need it, there’s an innate need inside us searching for a part of ourselves we can identify with. I want to give people their language, and allow them to grasp something they’ve been searching for,” she told CNN.

“This is the language we identify with as a people, and through colonization and its efforts to make us feel less than who we are, our parents and ancestors lost the ability to speak their own language.”

There are an estimated 180,000 Inuit in the world, most of whom live in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Nearly 65,000 Inuit live in Canada, according to the Canadian government. Coley-Sudlovenick, 40, lives in Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s Nunavut territory.

She is among the estimated 39,700 people who speak Inuktitut, with more than 65% of them living in Nunavut, according to a 2017 census.

Coley-Sudlovenick learned Inuktitut from her mother who spent her childhood in a Federal Day School, where she was abused and forbidden from speaking her native language, she said.

“She was belittled, mocked and scolded for speaking Inuktitut,” Coley-Sudlovenick said of her mother. “If the system had their way, she would have lost it completely.”

Miali Coley-Sudlovenick

After that, her family vowed to preserve their culture and language, and pass them on to future generations.

To that end, Coley-Sudlovenick launched an online course in 2021 to teach Inuktitut. The course is offered through her business Allurvik, which aims to preserve Inuit culture through education, art and more.

“It’s an incredibly rich language that allows us to truly understand our land, who we are, how we treat and connect with our community,” Coley-Sudlovenick said.

“Many people want to learn Inuktitut but don’t have the access or the supports in place. All I want to do is to make Inuktitut a little more accessible, especially to Inuit who want to learn and anyone else who’s interested. I hope my work also inspires others to make Indigenous languages more widely available.”

‘I always felt like there was a big part of me missing’

Tapisa Kilabuk has always been proud of her identity as Inuk, but found herself unable to shake off the feeling that something was missing.

Kilabuk was born and raised in Nova Scotia and moved to Alberta, where she was separated from her Inuit family and community. Disconnected from her native language, she has struggled to find resources close by to learn.

“I always felt like there was a big part of me missing and I realized (that) to think through my Indigeneity, I needed to be able to comprehend the way Inuit think,” Kilabuk, 32, told CNN. “To do that, I needed to learn our language; that’s how you see the world and explain yourself, and not having that made me feel like I wasn’t part of my community.”

Kilabuk said she felt overwhelmed with joy when she stumbled across an online ad for Coley-Sudlovenick’s language course.

“It was such an amazing opportunity to be able to learn our language even though I wasn’t living amongst my community,” she said. “It means everything to me.”

Miali Coley-Sudlovenick during her Zoom class teaching Inuktitut.

While it will take time to master the intricacies of Inuktitut, just being able to introduce herself in her native language has “empowered” Kilabuk, she said, a feeling she never imagined she’d experience.

“I might be a little older, but it’s never too late,” Kilabuk said. “Just because we were forced into assimilating into this concept of Whiteness, it doesn’t mean our Indigenous languages aren’t important or relevant to this world.”

As a University of Calgary student majoring in international Indigenous studies, one of her life passions is fighting for Indigenous rights and raising awareness on human rights violations impacting Native people across North America.

“To be able to advocate for my community and be an activist for all Indigenous people, I need to be able to explain myself in a way that’s truly Inuit,” Kilabuk said. “Doing that in English isn’t enough. By connecting with our language, I’m offered a much stronger foundation than doing (it in) English. It inspires me to keep going in my work to restore and revitalize our language.”

‘My generation is responsible for picking up the pieces’

When you take away someone’s language, you take away a part of who they are – and that is an injustice, Coley-Sudlovenick said. That’s why she’s happy to help Kilabuk and others like her reconnect with their native tongue.

“It makes us feel insecure about who we are as people, as if we’re supposed to try to be White or less of ourselves in order to be accepted into mainstream society,” Coley-Sudlovenick said. “So much of our culture is gone, so much of who we identify with has been erased. All we’re trying to do is bring those parts of us back to life.”

“What is left for my generation to identify with? We’ve had to understand who we are through the White lens, with much of the meaning lost in translation.”

Miali Coley-Sudlovenick with her husband and two daughters.

In fact, the weight of some words and feelings cannot be easily translated, Coley-Sudlovenick said.

Inuktut words that capture an insurmountable amount of love and indescribable feelings of joy, for example, cannot be easily expressed in other languages.

“I do this because it brings me joy hearing our language spoken and seeing so much beauty in being able to connect with others in such an intimate way,” Coley-Sudlovenick said.

“But it goes deeper than that, too. My generation is responsible for picking up the pieces to reclaim our identities, our cultures, and our languages.”