12/12/2018 CAGE researcher serves as cultural bridge between Basque Country and the high north

Naima El bani Altuna helps to preserve a nearly-forgotten language while pursuing her dreams in Tromsø, Norway


The link between language and cultural identity is one of great importance for many people around the world with ethnic-minority origins. This especially holds true for populations where cultural identity has been traditionally suppressed by the majority population, such as in the case of the Basque people of northern Spain and southern France.

The Basque are an ethnic group whose origins are unknown, but have occupied the land separating Spain and France since long before the two countries had modern-day borders. Spanish and French ways of life began to push out the minority Basque culture due to sheer numbers and political influence, and the situation escalated in the 20th century. An entire generation of Basque lost their language or were forced to hide it when speaking the language was made illegal under the leadership of General Franco, the Spanish dictator who reigned from 1939 to 1975.

Since that time, there has been a major push for the preservation of the Basque language. Sharing a common tongue helps to unify these people, bringing them closer to a sense of their history, who they are, and where they come from. Such issues are close the heart of Naima El bani Altuna, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment, and Climate (CAGE) UiT, inspiring her to share her research and other passions by creating an award-winning Basque-language Twitter account.

A mother’s history promotes cultural activism


El bani Altuna grew up in a multicultural household in Bilbao, a part of the Basque country in northern Spain. She was heavily influenced by the experience of her mother, a Basque-identifying Spaniard who lived through the oppressive regime of General Franco. As a young woman, El bani Altuna’s mother could only speak her native Basque language in secret in the confines of her own home, and was even required by the state to change her first name from ‘Ane’ to ‘Ana’ in order to appear less Basque. Although El bani Altuna was born well after this regime fell out of power, she still developed a well-earned respect for her culture and its roots in the minority language.

While working on her Master’s thesis in Oceanography at the University of Bordeaux in France, El bani Altuna had the opportunity to stay for 3 months in Alberta, Canada, studying an Arctic-variant of a planktonic foraminifera species she was researching in Europe. This trip opened her eyes to the unique beauty of life in the north, and the wealth of scientific data waiting to be uncovered in such remote areas.

After receiving a PhD position at CAGE UiT – The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, not only did El bani Altuna want to bring details of her research to her people in Basque Country, but she wanted to share with them the story of the Arctic, an area far removed from northern Spain in both distance and general knowledge. It was important to her that this information not only be accessible to other scientists, but also to the average person, and in the Basque language. But how?

Social media is the key to widespread access


Exact statistics vary, but Basque is one of the most-Tweeted minority languages in the world, a position that has skyrocketed since its humble introduction to Twitter in 2012.  Through this medium, El bani Altuna is able to bring easily-digestible tidbits of geological and Arctic issues to the Basque community in 280 characters or less. Although her Twitter account (@artikoan) has only been in existence since July of 2018, it has already acquired over 700 Basque-speaking followers – no small feat for a language with only 1 million speakers worldwide.

The contest that El bani Altuna won on Twitter was organized by the Basque Summer University (UEU) and unibertsitatea.net, a networking portal for the Basque-speaking university community. The challenge was for Basque-speaking PhD students to describe their research in 6 Tweets in Basque. There were two prizes for the most clear and understandable translation of research (500€ each) and one prize for the most original (300€). El bani Altuna was one of the winners in the ‘most clear and understandable’ category.

The Tweets, as translated by El bani Altuna to English for the purposes of this article, have been reproduced below. The first Tweet was required to be title of the research by the rules of the contest, while the last Tweet was to be the hypothesis. The original Tweets, in Basque, can be viewed here.

El bani Altuna’s success is already creating a lot of excitement in Basque Country in the media. She has had several Basque-language radio interviews, an interview for a Basque-language newspaper, and will even be featured on a scientific Basque TV program and in a prestigious Basque science magazine. And this may only be the beginning.

El bani Altuna’s research connects generations

Traveling to the north may not be an activity that is popular with many modern Basque people, but El bani Altuna is certainly not the first to make the journey. In the 16th and 17th century, whaling was an important way of life for many Basque, and they hunted in the areas around northern Norway and Svalbard. El bani Altuna follows in the footsteps of her ancestors as she continues to explore the north as they did hundreds of years before. It is quite poetic that she has also managed to bring her research and Arctic interests to the modern-day Basque people while honoring those of the past. Who knows – maybe somewhere in Basque Country there is a young girl dreaming of ice-covered mountains and shimmering northern lights that will one day be inspired to make the journey herself.

Text: Jessica Green
(References: Saving Eusakara, Keeping Basque Alive in Idaho, interview with Naima El bani Altuna)

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