A small item in the Anchorage Daily News quietly announced the death of Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last native speaker of the Eyak language. Eyak is one of nearly 20 Alaskan Native languages, and the first to become extinct.
Jones was chief of the Eyak Nation, a people whose ancestral homeland runs along 300 miles of the Gulf of Alaska from Prince William Sound, near the fishing village of Cordova, and stretches east across the Copper River Delta to the town of Yakutat. Presently, according to the Alaska Native Language Center, only about 50 Eyaks remain.
After her older sister died several years ago, Jones became the last remaining speaker of her language. None of Marie Jones’ children learned Eyak because, as her daughter explained, “they grew up at a time when it was considered wrong to speak anything but English.”
Jones became an activist, and spoke at the United Nations on the importance of indigenous languages. She also became an environmentalist, lobbying against the timber harvesting practices of her own village corporation. Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, worked with Jones. He said that Jones, being the last native speaker of her language, bore her tragic mantle with great dignity, grace and spirit. Krauss and Jones worked to compile an Eyak dictionary.