“Are you ready to make history?” That is the invitation and challenge that greets visitors to the Eyak Language Project’s home page, launched January 1, 2011. Three years ago Chief Marie Jones Smith, the last Native speaker of Eyak, died, but not before partnering with independent film maker Laura Bliss Spaan to document the language in video recordings. The Eyak Preservation Council is using those recordings in an attempt to do something never before done in Alaska- to bring a language back from extinction.
Aspiring Eyak speakers have been encouraged by the story of a 21 year old Frenchman who taught himself the language. Guillaume Leduey stumbled across information on the language online nearly a decade ago, discovering it only had one Native speaker remaining. Leduey, who was only 12 years old at the time, made it his mission to learn Eyak, using texts he tracked down by linguist Dr. Michael Krauss. Leduey is now the primary translator and teacher for the Eyak Language Project.
The goal of the project is to move the language to a point where it isn’t simply a novelty or an academic point of interest, but an active part of Eyak culture once again. Sherry Smith, the project’s Cultural Coordinator, told The Bristol Bay Times “This isn’t just about saving recordings of words and phrases to become archival artifacts. It’s about making the words, and the unique view of the world that Eyak provides, have real meaning again today in peoples’ lives.”
In an effort to promote that goal, visitors to the Eyak Language Project’s website can view videos of Marie Jones Smith demonstrating pronunciation in a “word of the week” feature. They can also request to have specific words translated. Additionally, the project’s founders are planning on releasing a “survival kit” kit containing 5 multimedia DVDs with lessons on the writing system, the grammar, and how to use the technical dictionary.