Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A people group has vanished

A woman and a tribe's world pass into the beyond


Special to the Star-Telegram

A most uncommon woman with the most common of names died recently, and her death produced a faint sound: a sound like glass breaking, a sound that reverberated through time and space. Not a crash, exactly - more like the sound you sometimes hear when sitting in a restaurant and someone in the kitchen drops a piece of glassware. Diners look at one another with a sort of smiling pity, that middle place where one side of a lip turns up and the jaw juts out slightly. It's a look that says we understand because we've all dropped something breakable, only this time it's someone else's problem.
Marie Smith Jones died Jan. 21 at the good age of 89, the last full-blooded member of Alaska's Eyak Indians. For almost everything on earth there will come a last day, a last remnant, a final goodbye, but Jones' death brought an entire culture to an end. Jones was not only the last full-blooded member of the tribe - she was also the last person who spoke its language.
The Eyak began as a prehistoric tribe, breaking off from a larger tribe as long ago as 1,500 years before the birth of Christ. Never a large group, some believe the Eyak never numbered more than a thousand. As recently as the early 1800s, they commanded quite a bit of territory around Prince William Sound, but by the time Jones was born in 1918, only five Eyak families remained, all in a small town called Cordova.

As a young girl, Jones saw the final disintegration of the Eyak culture, brought on by disease, alcoholism and educators who forbade children to speak Eyak. In other words, the modern world did them in.
One of her daughters explained that she'd never learned her mother's language because in the mid-20th century, students were expected to speak only English. A long time ago, I learned of such nonsense from my mother, born of German parents who taught her not a word of their language, to protect her at school. Some call this assimilation.
The language of the Eyak is the first of 20 languages native to Alaska to disappear. Jones' sister also spoke Eyak, but she died in the early 1990s, leaving her sister as the last of her kind, like an endangered species no longer in a position to carry on the line.
It ended with her, an old lady picking salmonberries on a nearby mountain, speaking a lost language out loud to herself, doing her best to keep the memory of it. It's the kind of thing many of us do when working out a language other than our own. We try the words out loud, pushing them past our twisted tongues into the air.
In 1993, the Smithsonian Institution returned the bones of an Eyak Indian to Cordova, bones that had been at the institution since the 1930s. Jones played an integral part in the repatriation ceremony.
On the day of the burial, she told an Anchorage Daily News reporter that the low-hanging clouds and gray sky were absolutely perfect for the ceremony, as orthodox Eyaks believed that on such days God often lowered clouds so the ancestors could return and be near the living without frightening them.
Marie Smith Jones. Try it again: Marie Smith Jones.
Nope, doesn't work. The weight of her passing doesn't feel right sitting on a name like that - Cleopatra, maybe, or Nefertari. Marie Smith Jones is a mere mortal's name, and in the end that's all she was: mortal, just like the rest of us. But in her case, the dying flesh was a vessel holding a world soon lost.
And the sound of shattering glass you heard on Jan. 21? Just the sound of an old Alaskan woman dying in her sleep, dreaming of the past, knowing the future.
I hope that on the day of her burial in Alaska, the sky was gray and the clouds low, as there were probably many on both sides of that great divide between the living and the dead who wanted to be near.
The next time I hear glass breaking in a restaurant, I'll try not to think the loss is someone else's problem.
Kurt Ullrich is a free-lance writer who lives near Maquoketa, Iowa. Jones
Oh God, make Yourself known among the other Alaskan tribes; make Yourself known quickly. Send workers to these areas so that on the day of Your return, their knees may bend in honor Your great Name.
Lord we recognize that if they do not bend their knees here on earth, their knees will be shattered when You come back, being forced into a submissive bow.
For Your great Names sake, send workers to these peoples before they vanish off the face of this Earth.

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