"When a language dies, a whole world dies. It takes millennia to develop, and is an artifact that contains within it a whole culture. This is a tragedy." said Steven Levinson, of the Max Planck institute for psycholinguists in the Netherlands.
Chief Marie Smith Jones, 89, the last full-blooded member of Alaska's Eyak Indians has died. She was not only the last of her tribe but also the last fluent speaker of the Eyak language. Born Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch, which means "a sound that calls people from afar", on May 14, 1918 in Cordova, Alaska, Chief Marie Smith Jones grew up on Eyak Lake, where her family had a homestead. She died Jan. 21, 2008 at her home in Anchorage.
Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch had a passion. She wanted to preserve the Eyak language. As the last fluent speaker of Eyak she collaborated with Michael Krauss, a linguist and professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her goal was to create a written record of the language that future generations could learn from and maybe even resurrect. She helped Krauss compile an Eyak dictionary and grammar. Along with her sister and a cousin she told Krauss stories, Eyak tales, that were made into a book.
"With her death, the Eyak language becomes extinct," Krauss said. In all, he said, nearly 20 native Alaskan languages are at risk of the same fate. He called them "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."
According to her daughter, Bernice Galloway, her mother was a traditional Indian in many ways. She was the youngest of the children and waited until her last older sister, Sophie, died in 1992 before taking on the responsibility that comes with being the oldest child. It was at that time that Jones pursued her interest in preserving the Eyak language and the environment, Galloway said.
To the best of our knowledge she was the last full-blooded Eyak alive," Galloway said. She was a woman who faced incredible adversity in her life and overcame it, she was about as tenacious as you can get."
Many of her siblings died young when smallpox and influenza tore through the Eyaks, her daughter said. In 1948, she married William F. Smith, a white Oregon fisherman who met Jones while working his way up the coastline. The couple had nine children, seven of whom are still alive. None of them learned Eyak because they grew up at a time when it was considered wrong to speak anything but English.
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.
According to Michael Krauss, "she was very much alone as the last speaker of Eyak for the last 15 years. She understood as only someone in her unique position could, what it meant to be the last of her kind."
"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."