January 23, 2008

The Last Speaker of Eyak Has Died

I just heard on NPR that Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of the indigenous Alaskan language Eyak, has died at 89. There's an AP article about her here: she was the last full-blooded Eyak; none of her numerous children learned Eyak because, as one of her daughters put it, they "grew up at a time when it was considered wrong to speak anything but English." Michael Krauss, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the world's most prominent expert on Native Alaskan languages, worked some years ago with her and two of her relatives to compile a dictionary and grammar of her language, as well as a collection of Eyak stories. But for the past fifteen years, the AP quotes Krauss as saying, Jones was "the last of her kind...With her death, the Eyak language becomes extinct."

I first heard of Marie Smith Jones in 1998, in a Newsweek article by Joan Raymond, "Say What? Preserving Endangered Languages" (14 September 1998). Raymond included Jones's comments about the non-transmission of Eyak to younger generations -- comments that could be echoed by many elderly Native Americans, including some of the Salish and Pend d'Oreille elders I work with in Montana. Jones was so eloquent that I used her words as part of the introduction to a chapter on endangered languages in my 2001 textbook on language contact:

Sometimes I could just kick myself for not teaching my children the language...When I was in school, we were beaten for speaking our language. They wanted to make us ashamed...I have 17- and 18-year-old kids coming to me crying because the elders in their tribes will not teach them their own language.

Krauss has also been eloquent on the subject of language loss. The AP story about Marie Smith Jones ends with his words:

This is the beginning of the end unless we do something. Alaska Native languages are the intellectual heritage of this part of the world. It is unique to us and if we lose them we lose what is unique to Alaska.
Posted by Sally Thomason at January 23, 2008 08:23 PM