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Edna (Ahgeak) MacLean Ph.D.

Photo of Edna (Ahgeak) MacLean Ph.D.

Even as a child, Edna MacLean learned to navigate the complexities of speaking and learning in two languages. Her father, who only spoke Iñupiaq, told her the world was changing and if she was to succeed, she would need to do so in English. His understanding that the future of his children would be considerably different from his own helped to ensure that they all found ways to survive and thrive.

MacLean cites her mother as having defended her when she was physically disciplined by her third grade teacher for speaking Iñupiag in the classroom. When she went home for lunch that day, she hid her bright red ear from the teacher’s harsh treatment under the hood of her coat, fearful her mother would be angry. She was, but not with Edna. The errant teacher did not enjoy the ensuing confrontation.

MacLean began her university education at UAF; then, with the encouragement of faculty there, she transferred to Colorado Women’s College in Denver where she was given a scholarship, a powerful incentive for someone without other resources. She returned to Utqiaġvik for the summers, and there she met her future husband. Upon graduation, she realized she would improve her prospects by getting a teaching credential, which she did at the University of California in Berkeley, where her husband was pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Biology based on research done at Barrow.

After the birth of their second son, the family moved to Fairbanks where her husband had been offered a position at UAF. Shortly after they arrived, she was contacted by Dr. Michael Krauss, then head of the Alaska Native Language Center. Dr. Krauss was among the first linguists to create an awareness of the global problem of endangered languages. He wanted her to help develop programs and teach Iñupiaq to UAF students.

MacLean’s first reaction was to laugh and decline, but he insisted, telling her “It is your duty!” She eventually relented and in 1976, ended up in a job she loved, and one that would expose her to new ways of thinking about language and education. It was during this time that she began learning to read and write her Native Iñupiaq language and to explore the best methods of teaching.

In 1987, MacLean had the opportunity to work in education policy as Special Assistant for Rural Education for the Alaska Commissioner of Education. It was in this role that she saw the poor performance of Alaska Native students since the State had taken responsibility for their education from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was shocked, and she realized that she would need further education to be able to understand and influence the policies and practices that had created this problem.

MacLean talks about her father’s insistence that his children have a deep understanding of the environment in which they lived. It had been critical to his success and survival as a subsistence hunter and whaler. If he didn’t know the currents and the ice and weather conditions, it could have a huge affect on his ability to provide for his family and, at worst, it could prove fatal.

This way of thinking is clear in MacLean’s pursuit of further education. Only by gaining a deeper and more thorough understanding of how children learn, particularly in communities where the teachers and students have different life experiences and cultural backgrounds, could she help to devise programs and policies that would serve Alaska’s Native youth. And so she sought out institutions where the experts were teaching and researching what she needed to know. She ended up with an M.A. from the University of Washington in Bilingual Education and a Ph.D in Education from Stanford University.

Upon completion of her Ph.D, MacLean was approached by community leaders who were developing a plan for a tribal college in Barrow. Their mission was to create a community college that offered the education and skills people in their community needed for the jobs and opportunities in Barrow. Dr. MacLean assumed the role of President of the developing institution, and under her leadership, in 2003, Ilisagvik College achieved accreditation as Alaska’s only Tribal College, serving the broad educational needs of the people of the North Slope.

The arrival of her first granddaughter precipitated her retirement from Ilisagvik College and move to Anchorage. Here, she was able to concentrate her attention on a long-standing project, the production of a dictionary of her native language. In 2014 this finally came to fruition with publication of the dictionary by the University of Alaska and University of Chicago Presses. The dictionary has been called “a monument of linguistic scholarship” and “a magnificent work of Iñupiaq lexicography”.

Today, Dr. MacLean continues her teaching through a Master Apprentice Program in which she works to help adults wanting to learn Iñupiaq through individualized programs of instruction. She remains involved with a North Slope Borough task force on language, recognizing that it will take a sustained, comprehensive, and strategic approach involving parents, teachers and community members to ensure that the Iñupiaq language endures.

Career Highlights

1976 – 1987   Instructor, Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Developed and taught language courses and B.A. degree program in Iupiaq.

1987 – 1990   Special Assistant for Rural Education for the Alaska Commissioner of Education in Juneau.

1995 – 2005   First President of Ilisagvik College in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

Volunteer Leadership 

1973-83         Member/President; North Slope Borough Commission on History, Language and Culture

1978-83         Inuit Circumpolar Conference Committee on Education

1983-95         Steering Committee for International Cross-Cultural Education Seminar Series in the Circumpolar North

1987-91         Committee on Arctic Social Sciences, Polar Reserach Board, National Research Council

1989-92         Inuit Circmpolar Conference Executive Council, Vice President for Alaska

1996               Member, Rural Educator Preparation Partnership

1996               Volunteer Iñupiaq reader for the Early Education Program at Ipalook Elementary School, Utqiaġvik

1998-2005     National Science Foundation Polar Programs Office Advisory  Committee

1999-2003     Founding member and Chairperson of the Consortium for Alaska  Native Higher Education

2000-05         Alaska Growth Capital Board of Directors

2001-05         Member, Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium

2001-05         The Foraker Group Operations Board Committee

2001-05         Old Testament Bible Translation Review Committee, Utqiagvik

2002-05         Alaska Humanities Forum board member

2004-2007     Quality Education for Minorities Network, Washington D.C.

2008               Member, Expert working group on offshore hydrocarbon in the Arctic, as

part of project, Arctic TRANSFORM: Transatlantic Policy Options for

Supporting Adaptations in the Marine Arctic 

Honors and Awards

1985               Elected a Fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America, recognizing significant contributions to the knowledge of polar and sub-polar regions

1987, 1995    President’s Award for Education, Alaska Federation of Natives

1996               Certificate of Recognition for dedicated service provided to the shareholders of UIC and the People of the North Slope, presented

by Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation

1997               Certificate of Appreciation, presented by the North Slope Borough and Inuit Circumpolar Conference

1999               Educator of the Year: Bobby Andrew Award, presented by the Alaska Native Education Council at the Alaska Native Education Council


2003               Certificate of Achievement for Success in achieving the first fully accredited, Native-controlled college (Ilisagvik College) in the

State  of Alaska for the Inupiat Communities of the North Slope, presented by the Inupiat Communities of the Arctic Slope

2004               Alumni Hall of Fame, Native American Cultural Center, Stanford University

2005               Shareholder of the Year, Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation

2006               Citizen of the Year Award, Alaska Federation of Natives

2006               Distinguished Service to the Humanities Award, Governor’s Awards  for the Humanities

2015                 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, Barrow, Alaska.

2015                 Contributions to Literacy (CLIA) in Alaska Award. Alaska Center for the Book, Anchorage, Alaska.

Educational Achievement

Mt. Edgecumbe High School; Sitka, Alaska

University of Alaska; Fairbanks, Alaska; Studies in Mathematics and Economics

Colorado Women’s College; Denver, Colorado; B.A.; Major in History, Minors in Humanities and German

University of California; Berkeley, California; California Life Teaching Credential

Aarhus University; Aarhus, Denmark; Graduate study in Greenlandic Eskimo language

University of Washington; Seattle, Washington; M.A. in Education (Bilingual Education)

Stanford University; Palo Alto, California; Ph.D; Education

Induction ceremony acceptance speech


Dr. MacLean has been a teacher, scholar, community leader and policymaker whose work in education and the documentation of her Iñupiaq language continues to create opportunities and cultural connection for Alaska’s Iñupiaq people.

Raised bilingual, MacLean grew up at a time when children were punished for speaking their Native languages in school.

In 1976, with a Bachelors degree and teaching credential, MacLean was hired to develop and teach Iñupiaq language courses at UAF. A fluent speaker, she had to read and write the language for the first time and often found herself learning along with her students. She discovered a passion for the work and a love of research as she began documenting the Iñupiaq language and how best to teach it.

In 1987, MacLean became the state’s Special Assistant for Rural Education. Here, she began to see the effect of Alaska’s education practices on the success of Native students. Wanting a deeper understanding of the problem, she returned to school, to study the impact of the student and teacher relationship, particularly where they are of different cultures. Eventually, she earned an M.A. from the University of Washington and a Ph.D from Stanford University.

In 1995, MacLean was recruited to be the first president of Iḷisaġvik College, Alaska’s only accredited tribal college. There, she fulfilled the institution’s mission to train and educate residents for the jobs and opportunities in the region.

Throughout her career, Dr. MacLean has continued to document the Iñupiaq language. In 2014, she published an Iñupiaq language dictionary, the culmination of many years of scholarship. The dictionary is one element in her efforts to ensure that the language continues to be spoken and serves as “a source of strength” to her people.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech