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Native Currents

In loving memory: Chief Marie Smith Jones

The last full-blooded Eyak and fluent speaker of the Eyak language died recently in her sleep and passed on to a different, more peaceful world at the age of 89.

Chief Marie Smith Jones passed away quietly at home Jan. 21, 2008, in Anchorage, Alaska. ''Chief Marie,'' as she was known, was born May 14, 1918, in Cordova, Alaska. She was a small Indian lady who talked quietly but carried a big stick, so to speak. She was not afraid to ''tell like it is'' no matter who you were or where you came from. She was a friend of mine, even if I was a Chugach!

Chief Marie was a strong advocate for Native rights. She was actively involved in numerous Native issues, dedicating the later years of her life to language preservation and environmental protection. During her lifetime, Chief Marie was invited to speak at the United Nations on two separate occasions. She was honored to share her passion for indigenous languages and for world peace.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Chief Marie worked with professor Michael Krauss of the Linguistics Department of the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, to preserve the Eyak language. I used to work with Marie and her older sister, Sophie, in documenting the Eyak history and language around the Cordova area. We also worked together in the repatriation of ancestral remains from the Smithsonian to the shores of Eyak Lake.

With the passing of the last fluent speaker of a Native language, it is a sad day for the Eyak people and the world. This should be a wake-up call to the rest of the indigenous languages in the world. We cannot stand by and wait for others to save what is important to our cultures. We must be proactive. Time waits for no one.

Listed below is an excerpt from the publication called ''Eyak Legends'' (available at the Chugach Alaska Corporation):

''The Eyak Nation is now small in number. Their last stronghold is in Cordova. The Eyaks, like the Athabaskans, are from a branch of the language family called ''Na Dene.'' Eyak is thus related to the Athabaskan languages of the Interior Alaska, Northwest Canada, and to the Navajos and Apaches of New Mexico and Arizona. It is estimated that the Eyak language evolved from proto-Athabaskan over three thousand years ago. It is believed that the Eyak were isolated along the coast for a long time. The Eyak language appears to be similarly related to the Apache and Navajo as it is to their closest Athabaskan neighbors, the Ahtnas.''

Money can come and go at the blink of an eye, but the spirit of the people and their heritage remains deep in the soil where their ancestors have lived and died. This bonding of the past and present brings a greater strength than any metal or monetary force.

Marie would always say: ''It is time to let go of our hate and put God, love and respect in our hearts. ... We must return to the old ways and teach them how to love.''

John F. C. Johnson is originally from the Aleut village of Nuchek in Prince William Sound. With the Chugach Alaska Corporation for nearly 30 years, Johnson has documented historical sites, collected oral histories and worked on repatriations for all the villages in the region. Johnson serves on the Smithsonian's NAGPRA Repatriation Review Committee. He can be reached at jjohnson@chugach-ak.com.