Farewell, Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch, the last native speaker of Eyak

By Rachel Shields
Friday 25 January 2008 01:00

A chain-smoker, activist, and mother of nine children, Marie Smith-Jones was one of a kind. The last surviving full-blooded Alaskan Eyak, and sole native speaker of the Eyak language, she was renowned for her commitment to preserving her heritage. When she died in her sleep this week at her home in Anchorage, aged 89, she left behind a comprehensive record of the now-extinct language – a dictionary of Eyak.

Eyak is one of 20 languages spoken in Alaska, many of which are thought to be fading out of existence. Mrs Smith-Jones was determined that the Eyak language would not die with her, and devoted much of her later life to this cause.

Working with linguists at the Alaska Native Languages Centre she compiled an Eyak dictionary and grammar guide. Michael Krauss, professor emeritus at the centre, said: "She understood as only someone in her position could, what it meant to be the last of her kind. And she was very much alone as the last speaker of Eyak.

"It's the first, but probably not the last at the rate things are going, of the Alaska native languages to go extinct. She understood what was at stake and its significance, and bore that tragic mantle with grace and dignity" Professor Krauss told the Anchorage Daily News.

Mrs Smith-Jones has been the last surviving Eyak for more than 15 years, since the death of her sister, Sophie, in 1992. This prompted her to begin campaigning on behalf of the region's indigenous people.

Wary of the press, Mrs Smith-Jones nevertheless gained a global reputation for activism. She fought against logging on the Eyaks' ancestral lands – which run 300 miles along the Gulf of Alaska – oversaw the repatriation of Eyak bones, and twice addressed the United Nations on the subject of peace and the preservation of indigenous languages.

In an interview in 2005, Mrs Smith-Jones gave her Eyak name, Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch, which she translated as "a sound that calls people from afar".

None of Mrs Smith-Jones's children were taught to speak Eyak. Like many parents in the region, she taught them English in the belief that it would prove more useful. Only two of the state's 20 native languages are spoken by children as their mother tongue. Steven Levinson, of the Max Planck institute for psycholinguists in the Netherlands, said: "When a language dies, a whole world dies. It takes millennia to develop, and is an artefact that contains within it a whole culture. This is a tragedy."

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