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Marie Smith Jones, 89, last full-blooded Alaskan Eyak

MARIE SMITH JONES MARIE SMITH JONES (ap/file 2001)
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Associated Press / January 25, 2008

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Marie Smith Jones, who worked to preserve her heritage as the last full-blooded member of Alaska's Eyak Indians and the last fluent speaker of their native language, has died. She was 89.

Ms. Jones died in her sleep Monday at her home in Anchorage. She was found by a friend, said daughter Bernice Galloway, who lives in Albuquerque.

"To the best of our knowledge she was the last full-blooded Eyak alive," Galloway said. "She was a woman who faced incredible adversity in her life and overcame it. She was about as tenacious as you can get."

As the last fluent speaker, she worked to preserve the Eyak language, a branch of the Athabaskan Indian family of languages, said Michael Krauss, a linguist and professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who collaborated with her.

She wanted a written record of the language so future generations would have the chance to resurrect it, said Krauss.

Ms. Jones helped Krauss compile an Eyak dictionary and grammar. Ms. Jones, her sister, and a cousin told him Eyak tales that were made into a book.

"With her death, the Eyak language becomes extinct," Krauss said. In all, he said, nearly 20 native Alaskan languages are at risk of the same fate. He called them "the intellectual heritage of this part of the world. It is unique to us and if we lose them, we lose what is unique to Alaska."

The Eyak ancestral homeland runs along 300 miles of the Gulf of Alaska from Prince William Sound in south-central Alaska eastward to the town of Yakutat. Ms. Jones was born in Cordova in 1918 and grew up on Eyak Lake, where her family had a homestead.

Many of her siblings died young when smallpox and influenza tore through the Eyaks, her daughter said. In 1948, she married William F. Smith, a white Oregon fisherman who met Ms. Jones while working his way up the coastline, Galloway said.

The couple had nine children, seven of whom are still alive. None of them learned Eyak because they grew up at a time when it was considered wrong to speak anything but English, Galloway said.

But Galloway said her mother was a traditional Indian in many ways. She was the youngest of her siblings and waited until her last older sibling died in the 1990s before taking on the responsibility that comes with being the oldest child. It was at that time that Ms. Jones pursued her interest in preserving the Eyak language and the environment, Galloway said.

"There was a transformation of our mother into a very proactive, politically active individual," Galloway said.

Ms. Jones twice spoke at the United Nations on peace and the importance of indigenous languages, Galloway said.

Krauss described Ms. Jones as a "wonderfully ordinary Eyak lady who lived to a ripe old age not because of an easy life but because of a rather hard life, coming up and surviving as an Eyak in the 20th century."

Being the last of her kind for the last 15 years, Krauss said, "was a tragic mantle that [Ms. Jones] bore with great dignity, grace, and spirit."

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