What goes around comes around

At the end of January 2008, at the St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska, friends and relatives gathered to bid farewell to Marie Smith Jones, a matriarch of her community. At 89 years old, she was the last fluent speaker of the Eyak language.

Obit JonesMarie Smith Jones (1918-2008) was born in Cordova, Alaska. She was an honorary chief of the Eyak Nation and the last remaining full-blooded Eyak. In a 2005 interview, she explained that her Eyak name translates as “a sound that calls people from afar”.

In 1948 Jones married fisherman, William F. Smith, with whom she had nine children. They did not learn to speak Eyak due to the social stigma associated with it at the time. Smith moved to Anchorage in the 1970s and, so that a record of the Eyak language would survive, she worked with the noted linguist Michael E. Krauss, who compiled a dictionary and grammar. Her last older sibling died in the 1990s. Afterwards, Jones became politically active, and on two occasions she spoke at the United Nations on the issues of peace and indigenous languages.

As the Eyak spoken language died, so did the stories of tricky Creator-Raven and the magical loon, of giant animals and tiny homunculi with fish-spears no bigger than a matchstick. People forgot why the word for a leaf was also the word for a feather – as though deciduous trees and birds shared one organic life. They neglected the taboo that would not let fish-skin and animal hide be sewn into the same coat; and they could not remember exactly why they built little wooden huts over gravestones, as if to give more shelter to the dead.

The Eyak are an indigenous group traditionally located on the Copper River Delta near the town of Cordova, Alaska. The people spoke a distinct language closely related to the Athabaskan languages of North America. Pressure from neighbouring ethnic groups and the spread of English resulted in a decline of the Eyak language and when Marie Smith Jones died, it appeared that the spoken language was lost.

But there is a twist to this tale. Beginning at age 12, Guillaume Leduey, a French college student had taught himself Eyak, using print and audio instructional materials he obtained from the Alaska Native Language Center. During that time, he never visited Alaska or conversed with Marie Smith Jones, the last native speaker.

In 2010 Leduey finally travelled to Alaska and met with Michael Krauss, then Professor Emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Dr Krauss assisted him with proper Eyak pronunciation and gave him further teaching in grammar and analysis of traditional Eyak stories. In June 2011, Leduey returned to Alaska to facilitate language workshops in Anchorage and Cordova. He is now regarded as a fluent speaker, translator, and instructor of Eyak.

The number of known languages varies over time as some of them become extinct and others are newly discovered. There is also controversy over what constitutes a separate language as opposed to a dialect. However, in its 17th edition released in 2013, the web-based publication Ethnologue: Languages of the World numbered some 7,106 languages and dialects. That same year 457 or 9.2% of living languages had fewer than 10 speakers. They will soon die out if no revitalization efforts are made.

Fortunately, there is now an Eyak Language Project led by Michael Krauss and Guillaume Leduey. Its goal is to revive Eyak as a living, spoken language, which will be achieved by acquiring and archiving multimedia materials to encourage independent learning and by reconnecting the language to the community.

I couldn’t find the Eyak for “good luck”, but “I love you” translates as: ilah qe’xleh. You never know when that might come in handy.

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