Edna MacLean


Small dictionaries and word lists began documenting the Iñupiaq language soon after English speakers started visiting northern Alaska in the 1800s. It wasn’t until 2014 that someone finally did the job right.

That year, the University of Alaska Press published Edna MacLean’s Iñupiatun Uqaluit Taniktun Sivuniŋit/Iñupiaq to English Dictionary.

MacLean, born in 1944, grew up on the North Slope, the granddaughter, on her mother’s side, of the famed trader Charles Brower and his wife, Asianggataq. MacLean’s father, Joseph Ahgeak, chose to speak only Iñupiaq. Her mother, Maria, spoke both Iñupiaq and English.

MacLean attended boarding schools and then the University of Alaska. In Barrow one Christmas, she met her future husband, biologist Steve MacLean.

The couple moved Outside to earn degrees but returned to Fairbanks in 1971 and began raising a family. Steve joined UAF’s biology faculty. Michael Krauss, founder of UAF’s Alaska Native Language Center, talked Edna into teaching Iñupiaq language classes.

She began work on the dictionary to help in her classes. Becoming a UAF faculty member, she worked on the dictionary until the late 1980s, when she joined the Alaska Department of Education. A subsequent job as president of Iḷisaġvik College in Barrow diverted her attention again.

Finally, she returned to the dictionary in 2006. She worked 12-hour days for several years, finishing an online version in 2010 and then the paper copy in 2014.

MacLean, in a 2015 interview, said she hopes the dictionary will help establish Iñupiaq literacy. 

“My granddaughter in New York, I’m constantly buying her books, but they’re all in English. I want that kind of accessibility in buying books in Iñupiaq for my grand–nieces and grand–nephews in Barrow so their parents can read Iñupiaq to them,” she said. “They’re seeing the spoken word connected to the printed word, and that promotes literacy.”

More online about Edna MacLean:

  • A curriculum vitae current through 2010.

  • A KUAC interview with Rob Prince, UAF journalism professor.

  • An article about her creation of the Inupiaq to English dictionary in the spring 2015 edition of UAF’s Aurora magazine.