Extinct Alaska Native language interests French student

EXTINCT: Last Native speaker died; now French youth picks up the word.

June 27, 2010 

Guillaume Leduey, 21, of France, has studied different languages all his life. He is now trying to learn the extinct Eyak language. A Fairbanks linguist is the only person known to speak Eyak.

BOB HALLINEN / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

When the last Alaska Native who could speak the Eyak language fluently died in 2008, Fairbanks linguist Michael Krauss became the only person who could still hold a conversation in it.

He just didn't have anyone to talk to. Until now.

Even as the 75-year-old Krauss worked to preserve the language, a shy French teenager was sitting in his bedroom thousands of miles away, trying to teach himself Eyak.

Now Guillaume Leduey is here in Alaska, studying with Krauss, learning how the language works by analyzing traditional Eyak tales word by word and deciding if he wants to be the torchbearer for the effort to resurrect the language. No pressure.

"It's strange to learn a language that is likely to be never spoken by anyone," said Leduey, who is now 21 and visiting Anchorage from Le Havre, a city of about 180,000 people.

Eyak was spoken by the indigenous people along the Gulf of Alaska coast from what's now Cordova east to Yakutat. There were never more than a few hundred Eyak in known history and theirs was the first of the 20 Alaska Native languages to go extinct, Krauss said.

Yup'ik, which is spoken by young people in some western Alaska villages, remains the healthiest, but they all will fade unless new generations are taught the languages, he said.

"Eyak is predictably the first, but the question is who is next?" Krauss said.

Anchorage filmmaker Laura Bliss Spaan directed a documentary on the last fluent Native speaker, Marie Smith Jones, in 1995. About 10 years later, Bliss Spaan said, Leduey tracked down her e-mail address. He'd been researching endangered languages online, he said, and persuaded Bliss Spaan to send him copies of instructional DVDs she created.

As a boy in France, Leduey dreamed of learning to speak Lithuanian while other kids played PlayStation. As a young teenager he was thinking of studying Haida -- "It sounded great to me, it was a beautiful language" -- when he learned about Eyak.

Leduey -- who knows or has studied at least six languages -- has the ability to one day speak the language as fluently as anyone, Krauss said. "A good question is: What's in it for him? ... He has to eat, so can he make a good living doing that?"

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The founder of the Alaska Native Language Center, Krauss studied Eyak for decades as a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He has written a dictionary, collected, translated and edited stories and was author of a book based on his work with another of the last fluent Native speakers called "In Honor of Eyak: The Art of Anna Nelson Harry." Harry died in 1982.

That record prevents the language from being forgotten. But much work remains if it's to be resurrected. There would be books and high-tech teaching materials that could be used to instruct everyone from children to college students.

Ultimately the language won't live again unless it's learned and spoken by children, Krauss said.

"My work, even if I manage to finish what I would like to do, still has a lifetime of work for someone to study further," Krauss said.

Even Leduey doesn't seem to know if he wants -- or would be able -- to continue the endeavor. He's also an aspiring artist.

Whatever he does, his parents want him to start earning money now, he said, but it's unclear whether any grant money is available to study a language that nearly no one understands anymore.

The Eyak culture was already being absorbed by the Tlingits when Americans came to Alaska, Krauss said. "The advent of the canneries and the Copper River railroad did in what was left of the Eyaks."

By the early 1990s, only one known fluent Native speaker remained -- Marie Smith Jones. When she died in January of 2008, so did the language.

Mona Curry, one her daughters, remembers reading a population map of Alaska as a 12-year-old that said her people were already extinct. She now estimates that fewer than 120 people who are even half Eyak remain.

PASSION DEFIES EXPLANATION

Handsome and thin with a wisp of a beard, Leduey is an only child who said he doesn't talk to people much but has always been gripped by languages. He didn't relate to the kids playing outside; he performed in an orchestra and found his fun in words.

When he got older he was disappointed by his years at university. The other students didn't take anything seriously.

Leduey, who wanted to learn Lithuanian at the age of 10, spent 2008 in Paris studying the Georgian language. "It's a passion," he said in a soft French accent. "I think we can't explain passions."

He recalled the past few years and the path that brought him to Alaska on Saturday in Bliss Spaan's West Anchorage living room. Puck, the family's snorty, goggle-eyed black pug, scrambled on laps across the couch.

Mona Curry, Marie Smith Jones' daughter, sat in front of the stone fireplace, listening. She'd met Leduey earlier that morning.

"It was really emotional to hear you say you know the word for 'thank you,' " Curry told him. "What is that word?"

"Awa'ahdah," Leduey replied.

Say that again, Curry said, concentrating on the pronunciation.

As a girl, her mother was told not to speak Eyak in school, Curry said. The family didn't speak it at home and Curry said she never thought she could learn a second language. But now she's taking Spanish classes. Turns out she has a knack for it.

You'll be the next Eyak student, Bliss Spaan told her.

The filmmaker is hosting Leduey's monthlong visit to Alaska after the two met in person for the first time last year in Paris. Years after sending the teenager a few DVDs, Bliss Spaan found Leduey could quote entire passages from a signed copy of Krauss' book.

"I learned Eyak at the same time I was learning English," he said.

During his stay in Alaska, Ledeuy plans to visit Cordova and see where the Eyak people lived. First he'll head back to Fairbanks, where he already spent several days studying with Krauss. One of his first tasks was studying an Eyak tale about tiny lake people who are hunting for mice when one of the little hunters is discovered by a full-sized human.

Coming from a culture that was assimilated by Tlingits and then Western culture, the stories of greatness and smallness were told by Anna Nelson Harry, one of the last Eyak speakers. They carried common moral messages, Krauss said.

"Anna witnessed the destruction of her own people by the Tlingits and the destruction of the Tlingits by guess who? ... She's warning the Tlingits," he said.


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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