Prominently featured alongside “Google Agonizes on Privacy As Ad World Vaults Ahead,” is another article, “In Alaska, a Frenchman Fights to Revive the Eyak’s Dead Tongue.” It’s undeniable that the internet giant Google is more relevant to millions worldwide. But for me, the struggle to keep a native people from disappearing altogether is of greater significance to humankind. Obviously the editors of the Wall Street Journal feel both Google and the Eyak’s deserve equal attention by deciding to feature both on today’s front page. Kudos to the Journal!
Twenty-one year old, French, college student Guillaume Leduey, proficient in French, English, German, Chinese and Georgian, and able to sing one Lithuanian song, has made it his mission to save the Alaskan Eyak language from extinction. “Mr. Leduey’s Eyak odyssey began at age 12, when he happened on the language while trolling through an online dictionary of languages in his hometown of Le Havre. By searching more online, he discovered Eyak appeared to have only one native speaker, Ms. Jones. ‘I was like, “Wow, one speaker left. I must do something to learn the language,” ‘ Mr. Leduey says. His parents were less than thrilled. ‘They don’t think it’s useful,’ he says.”
An aspiring sculptor, Leduey had never left Europe until June when he made the trip to Alaska to study with 75-year-old Michael Krauss, a linguistics professor at the University of Alaska who knows conversational Eyak. “While as many as 20 native dialects remain in Alaska, Mr. Krauss says Eyak is considered extinct because there are no fluent, native speakers.” Sequestered in a room together for 5 hours each day, they pored over Eyak documents. As a diversion, Leduey sang Eyak songs to the professor’s Norwich Terrier, Scamper.
Immersing himself into the culture, Leduey journeyed to Cordova, “where the Eyaks made their last stand against being swallowed up by civilization.” Rival Tlingits helped white settlers in the takeover of the Eyak territory. Some part-natives took Leduey to visit a demolished village site and Child’s Glacier, a natural attraction. There a harbor seal leapt out of the icy waters to which he exclaimed “Keeltaak,” the Eyak word for the animal. To complement his education, Leduey learned the tradition of cooking salmon in the ground. He dug a shallow pit in the front yard of an Eyak descendant, then tended a crackling fire in which 2 red salmon roasted in giant skunk cabbage leaves. Still raw after 90 minutes, however, the salmon were thrown into the oven to finish cooking.
Several have sought lessons from Leduey, like 50-year-old Mr. Lankard and 53-year-old Ms. Curry. Her “…mother, Marie Smith Jones, was considered by Alaska historians the last native Eyak speaker when she died in 2008. Her descendants and others didn’t become fluent in the language because of a stigma around speaking anything other than English in Alaska’s native villages.” Curry, eyes brimming with tears, viewed a film in which her mother spoke in the Eyak tongue at a tribal ceremony. To understand the words, however, Curry turned to Leduey to translate. She thanked him saying that it was beautiful. To which he replied “It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you God. ” Curry feels that learning her native language, which had been passed down through storytelling, is the right thing to do now in spite of the past stigma. “‘This will help keep my mom’s memory and spirit alive.”
The extinction of the Eyak language and potentially its culture, reminds me of my childhood growing up in Maui in the 50’s. My mom was a native who spoke Hawaiian fluently with her family and native friends. She did not, however, speak it with us, her children. Prominent, powerful landowners were lobbying to make Hawaii the 50th state, for obvious business reasons. To support these efforts speaking English and studying American History were a mandatory part of school curriculums. Our native language and culture were virtually squelched.
As her friends passed away, my mom had fewer and fewer people with whom to speak Hawaiian. Long before she died, she had ceased speaking it, having lost much for lack of use. Not until long after my husband and I graduated from college and moved away from Hawaii, did a movement among the natives slowly bring about a resurgence in an appreciation for the language and the culture. Today they are taught in schools statewide, including at the University of Hawaii. Proud of their culture, islanders are more than happy to share their food, song and dance with new communities, when they relocate to other parts of the country.
While there is a strong comparison between the plight of the Eyaks and that of the Hawaiians, the latter did not face extinction. Westernization did not eradicate their culture. It was ingrained as much in the land, as it was in the people themselves. The gods of the earth, sky and sea would not relinquish their hold, nor would the natives abandon their attachment to the islands without bloodshed. That is the history of the Hawaiians. And it has been preserved through the ages by the monarchy, and following their demise, by natives and others loyal to their memory. Kamehameha School has long been an institution dedicated to educating children of native descent, not only in the academics but in all aspects of Hawaiian heritage. It remains at the forefront of yielding young adults not only well versed in their own culture, but in the world-at-large. And they confidently take their place in society, a credit to their native roots.
We should applaud the efforts of Guillaume Leduey for taking on the preservation of a culture almost singlehandedly. It seems when others ask “Why?” Leduey asks “Why not?”
a people depend upon it, that’s why…hugmamma.