She was the last known speaker of Eyak. Which was a language spoken near the mouth of the copper river in Alaska. It has now become a symbol in the fight against language death. It is the first known native Alaskan language to become extinct.
When Marie Smith Jones died early in 2008 she received obituaries from respected sources all around the world, perhaps indicating that language death in not just an interest of a few linguists. Smith, the last full-blooded Eyak, only really became politically active after the death of her sister in the 1990s, which made her the last speaker of their language. She had declined to teach her children the language because of the social stigma attached to it. However in her later years, she helped work on an Eyak dictionary, became active in environmental concerns, and twice spoke at United Nations on peace and indigenous languages. (Source)
The questions unanswered: What does it mean to be a humanities major getting sad about the death of of language, or the death of a last living speaker? To describe the loss of Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of Eyak, as “powerful” or “sad” or “eye-opening”? To what extent can linguistic preservation be a form of colonialism itself? What is the deal with The Linguists?
I don’t know. I’m not a linguist.
But I do know that North American White English Speakers talking about their feelings about the “death” of an Indigenous North American Language is kind of imperial. But I also know that this print is pretty neat.
In 2000, Alaska lost one of its beloved orcas, the Chugach transient known as Eyak.
He beached on July 11th five miles south of Cordova in Hartney Bay. Rescuers tried their best to save him, placing wet blankets over his back and comforting him, but he passed away at around 4:30 that afternoon.
Eyak had been seen in the area prior to his death exhibiting strange behavior. It was first reported that he had beached himself on a nearby island on July 9th but managed to get himself back in the water. On the morning of his death he was spotted swimming very very slowly; another observer said that he saw Eyak feeding himself in Hartney Bay just before he stranded.
Perhaps nobody felt his loss more than Eva Saulitis, who has been studying Eyak and his family since 1986.
Eyak’s skeleton can be seen hanging in the Ilanka Cultural Center in Cordova, Alaska.
I am so sorry to say that Eva Saulitis, a prominent orca researcher here in Alaska, and author of the book “Into Great Silence,” passed away today from breast cancer.
My heart is broken. While I never personally met her, I looked up to her very much. She was a huge inspiration to me. Her work with orcas, especially the AT1 transients, was vitally important. She loved those whales with all of her heart and soul.
I also feel very deeply for her husband and research partner Craig Matkin. I cannot even begin to fathom what he is going to through right now.
The world lost a wonderful soul today.
Wherever you are, Eva, I hope you are with your beloved AT1 Eyak.
The monolingual America headcanon is the bane of my existence. Yes, the US has no official language and yes, English is the most common. But heres all the languages the 50 states have declared to be official (mostly from Alaska):
Central Alaskan Yup'ik
Unofficial but worth noting:
America has debatably either the fifth or second highest Spanish speaking population in the world and many states give it legal credence
Louisiana creole French exists
As does Pennsylvania Dutch
Navajo and Cherokee are used on official things in New Mexico and Oklahoma respectively
Dakotan is taught in public schools in North and South Dakota
New York used to write laws in Dutch even after both Dutch and English rule had ended but I’m pretty sure that was just to make a statement @ England
There was a movement right after independence to make it required for all laws/statutes to be available in German, but it lost by one vote