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Reviving a dead Alaska Native language

There was big news last year for the Eyak language, the arrival of 22-year-old Guillaume Leduey, a French student who had stumbled upon Eyak while randomly surfing the Internet at age 15. Leduey had taught himself to speak Eyak using materials he ordered from Alaska. His 2010 trip to the United States came at the invitation of Michael Krauss, University of Alaska linguistics professor, and the only living speaker of Eyak on the planet since the death of Marie Smith-Jones, honorary Eyak chief and the last fluent Eyak speaker of the language; and, Laura Bliss-Spaan, a former television reporter who has taken up preservation of the language as a personal mission since discovering Eyak while covering the Cordova Iceworm Festival years ago.

Krauss and Bliss-Spaan wanted a first-person look at the whiz kid to find out if he was for real and decided he was. This spring the French phenom returned for several months to work with Krauss as an assistant. Not only is Leduey speaking Eyak fluently, he's begun teaching it, earning himself the nickname Super G.

Over the past two weeks, Eyak descendants and other interested folks have gathered for a series of workshops in Anchorage and Cordova led by Leduey in partnership with Roy Mitchell, a sociolinguist from the University of Alaska Anchorage, who has developed immersion workshops for a number of Alaska Native languages. While Leduey teaches Mitchell Eyak, Mitchell is helping Leduey learn to teach using techniques such as Total Physical Response and Accelerated Second Language Acquisition. Students in the workshops are asked to refrain from speaking English and to follow Leduey's prompts in Eyak to dance, sing, sit, stand and so on. According to Mitchell, the method of teaching is based on the way humans learn language as young children by hearing, seeing, doing and repeating - not the traditional crusty classroom style where students are drilled in the conjugation of verbs with distant bait of actually being able to say something. Within an hour, students in the workshops were recognizing Leduey's cues and, importantly, having fun.

New language learners

In Cordova, the two-day Cordova workshop was attended by approximately 30 people, including children, mothers and grandmothers primarily of Eyak descent. It was a boisterous and lively foray into the language. The Anchorage workshop was comprised of a smaller, slightly more intense group comprised heavily of Smith-Jones family members. The Anchorage workshop offered a total of 16 hours of instruction over two weekends. Students were introduced to the elements of Krauss' dictionary, the only Eyak language dictionary, and worked on learning how to form Eyak words in their mouth - a combination of sounds from deep gargling to the slightest whisper.

At both workshops, attendees spoke with bittersweet fondness for the Eyak language, recalling happy childhood memories of their mothers and grandmothers secretly speaking the banned language at home, the haunting reality of a lone speaker and the implications of a dying language for their families and tribe.

To date the effort to preserve Eyak has been funded with small grants, most recently from the Alaska Humanities Forum, Eyak Corp. and the Chugach Heritage Foundation, and support from the Eyak Preservation Council and the Native Village of Eyak. It has been a largely grassroots effort with great credit due to Bliss-Spaan, who has spent years video-documenting Smith-Jones and Krauss. Bliss-Spaan also developed an award-winning Eyak language learning program on DVD, which is how Leduey initially learned the language. However, the DVD is highly academic, targeted mostly at linguists. Leduey's presence, ability and interest means that the critical next-step of teaching non-academics to speak the language is more than possible, it's real.

The struggle for the Eyak language has earned prestigious coverage from the front page of the New Yorker magazine to the Wall Street Journal. Just a few years ago, New Yorker reported its death. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported with skepticism the French glimmer of hope. What the Journal missed, according to Bliss-Spaan, was what is truly at stake in the fight for survival of an obscure language.

Eyak is a place-based language, meaning that its words are rooted in the specific land of its speakers. They are literally of the same earth. Consider for example that in Eyak there are only two seasons - summer and winter. Fall is expressed as "toward winter" and spring as "toward summer." For anyone who lives in this land, there is both wisdom and humor in that. The language is not only very descriptive, the word for octopus literally means "several things are sitting under a rock," it is revealing of the people and their culture. There are no Eyak words for hunter or fisherman because they were all hunters and fisherman. There is no Eyak word for war. That word is a derivative of Tlingit.

Mitchell is confident that Eyak can be spoken fluently again. Pointing to another obscure language, Manx, which died out years ago, Mitchell says today the language is being spoken fluently thanks to descendants of the original speakers who determined to learn the language and incorporate it into their home lives. The result was that their children have grown up as fluent speakers.

Truly learning Eyak is not easy. The sounds are complex even if you are familiar with Alaska Native languages. However, if it is any indication of the potential after just a few workshops, Angela Arnold, executive director of the Native Village of Eyak and herself of Eyak descent, recently wrote letters in Eyak welcoming dignitaries in town for the Humpback Creek hydro plant dedication and personally greeting them with Eyak words of welcome.

"This was the first time in my life that I was able to do that and I am very excited," said Arnold. "I have always wanted to be able to do that."

With two living fluent speakers, Krauss and Leduey, the involvement of Mitchell, the deep commitment of Bliss-Spaan and highly motivated Eyak descendants there is at last more than a glimmer of hope for the Eyak language. There is talk of establishing a scholar-in-residence position for Leduey, and like many good things in life, all that is needed now is money.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.

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