The Eyak language was declared extinct in 2008 when the last surviving Native Eyak speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died at the age of 89.
But the language is far from gone – it’s being taught to Eyak descendants and anyone else who is willing to learn it.
Revitalizing and reviving the lost language of Eyak was the focus of Eyak Culture Camp on July 29-31 at Orca Adventure Lodge. Eyak is part of the Na-Dené language family and was historically spoken by the dAXunhyuu people living along the Gulf of Alaska coast, near the mouth of the Copper River.
The three-day gathering is a time of fellowship and includes classes on Eyak history, field trips and talking circles, traditional crafts such as skin sewing and beading, learning how to build a smokehouse, singing traditional songs, eating traditional foods, and learning and speaking words in the Eyak language.
Eyak language revival
In 2010, Eyak was being spoken by one man on the other side of the world, Guillame Leduey.
Leduey was 12-years-old when he first heard about the Eyak language. In addition to Eyak, he speaks French, English, German, Chinese, Georgian and some Lithuanian.
Leduey, now 27-years old, wrote to Laura Bliss Spaan when he was a preteen. Bliss Spaan is the media director for the Eyak Language Program and an Emmy-nominated film producer and director.
She has produced several films in Alaska about Marie Smith Jones and the disappearing Eyak language, and has spent the last 18 years documenting the Eyak culture, both as a personal and professional passion, according to the Eyak Preservation Council website.
“Laura sent the package to Guillame in France, full of Eyak language DVDs and audios, and a few books on Eyak,” said Carol Hoover, executive director and cofounder of the EPC. “He taught himself the Eyak language.”
Today, Leduey is considered a fluent speaker, translator and teacher of Eyak. Leduey practiced speaking the Eyak language with the children and adults who attended the culture camp last weekend.
With the help of technology and the support of organizations such as the Eyak Preservation Council, The Eyak Corp., the Administration for Native Americans, the Eyak Foundation, the Chugach Heritage Foundation, the Alaska Humanities Forum, the National Geographic Genographic Legacy Fund and the Alaska Native Language Archive, Eyak is being taught to children in their homes for the first time in nearly 100 years.
There’s now an interactive, online e-learning interface which takes students step-by-step through the Eyak language learning program. Eyak words are spoken, then shown written in English and in Eyak, and spoken out loud again, so that the student can listen and practice speaking the new words. It is designed for all ages.
Remembering tribal heritage
Dune Lankard is the president of the Eyak Preservation Council, and its founder. An Eyak Alaska Native from the Eagle Clan, he is an outspoken advocate of preserving the Eyak culture and their traditional way of life, something which he endeavors to pass on to future generations.
“When we started the Eyak Culture Camp, I dreamed of our children speaking in their Eyak Native tongue,” Lankard said. “I dreamed of our children being proud of their heritage, of revitalizing our fishing culture that helped us exist into today, of building a modern day village and longhouse with renewable energy projects that keep our footprint low like in the days of old. And, last but not least, of reclaiming our Eyak tribal name, ancestral lands and federal recognition as a distinct Alaskan Native tribe that continues to live and add to humanity for another 3,500 years in the Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound region.”
He said some of the words in the Eyak language are hard to pronounce, even for him.
“When I hear new words in Eyak,” he said. “I start to remember things that I never knew. The little ones will hear these words. It is such a beautiful language, and for the first time, they will hear that language and they will remember. It gives us hope that everything we’ve done so far has meaning.”
Hope for the future
Michael Krauss has spent a half-century documenting the Eyak language and history. Krauss holds a doctorate in linguistics and is a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Krauss published the Eyak Dictionary in 1970.
Krauss was unable to attend Eyak Culture Camp in-person this year, but connected to the Saturday afternoon discussion via Skype.
Krauss spoke about the stories in his book, “In Honor of Eyak: The Art of Anna Nelson Harry,” and about Nelson, who he fondly referred to as Annie, as well as Marie Smith Jones and a bit of Eyak history.
Krauss said he was happy to see so many attend the camp – people he could see in the community room at Orca Adventure Lodge on camera, during the Skype call.
Lankard listened to Krauss and became emotional.
“When I hear Dr. Krauss talk about the true anthropologic history of what happened to our Eyak people,” Lankard said. “With the interactions with the Spaniards, Russians, Americans and different Native tribes it angers and saddens me. The strategic assimilation of our people has led us to the dire situation we are in today – no more full bloods, less than 200 Eyaks alive today, and landless and penniless.”
Lankard is not without hope and it is that hope – and the future in front of his daughter, that keeps him in perpetual forward motion when it comes to his heritage and his culture.
“The cool thing about revitalizing the Eyak language,” Lankard said, “is that the United Nations can no longer say that our Eyak language is extinct. We now have new Eyak speakers of our unique language. We can teach our children – including my 6-year-old daughter Ananda Rose, our Eyak language, and once you know the words, you remember who you are, what we believed and how we survived, and thrived, in the world.”
Creating a new legacy
The camp is open to everyone. Attendance varied over the weekend, from about 12 people Friday evening during the dinner presentation, to several dozen participating on a field trip to Alaganik Slough on Saturday. From breakfast – LiidAwaa Yaa – to dinner – seeLk’Awah – campers of all ages were delighted and thankful – AwA’ahdah – for the opportunity to be a part of this special weekend.
“The revitalization and repatriation of our unique Eyak language, Native culture and sacred lands is long overdue,” Lankard said. “As exciting and important as it is, it is a hard long process that takes years of healing, fundraising and overcoming our fears.
“For example, we started working on documenting our Eyak language over 25 years ago and just now have digitized the Eyak-English dictionary that Krauss wrote with my grandmother Lena Saska, Marie Smith-Jones, and four other full-blooded speakers in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he said.
Lankard believes that we all carry the responsibility to create a new legacy.
“How we are going to continue to flourish in this changing and chaotic new world order?” he said. “Those who show up and participate know we have to work to change and adapt to these economic and climate changing times. The Eyaks, including tribes and rural communities worldwide, need to build new resilient communities and sustainable economies to tackle these serious issues and changes, while giving our children a sporting chance to thrive, rather than leaving them with bad decisions, debt, a dying planet and a slim chance of survival.”
It might be slow, but there is progression in the reestablishment of the Eyak culture.
100 students worldwide
Jenna May is the Project Director of the Eyak Language Revitalization Project, and was in Cordova this past weekend organizing classes, and teaching youngsters during culture camp.
May has been studying Eyak for about three years and says she is advancing her fluency with one-on-one instruction from Leduey.
“I know enough Eyak to teach the younger Eyaks in pre-school,” May said. “Guillaume teaches the older children and adults. I am focused on the young ones, using activities to engage them in the language learning.”
May said there are about a 100 people around the world using the dAXunhyuuga’ eLearning Place and about 40 of those people are Eyak Alaska Natives.
“We were awarded a three-year grant by the Administration for Native Americans, with matching funds from The Eyak Corp.,” May said. “I also develop curriculum and plan the children’s workshops, provide artwork for online materials and organize the Eyak Culture Camp.”
Support for the Eyak Culture Camp was also received from The Alaska Native Heritage Center, The U.S. Forest Service, the City of Cordova, Orca Adventure Lodge, Steve Brady, The Red Dragon Inn and Bliss MultiMedia.
Interested in learning to speak Eyak?
Eyak, the first Native language in Alaska to be declared extinct, now has a new chance at life. For the first time ever, the Eyak People – dAXunhyuu – have the learning materials and opportunities to make the Eyak language and culture thrive again.
Visit EyakPeople.com. The site features an ever-expanding Eyak dictionary, audio pronunciation clips, and a word request feature that allows community members to ask for the Eyak translation of a particular word or phrase.
Check out Eyak language lessons, stories and games at the dAXunhyuuga eLearning Place.