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Native Eyak Language May Have A Follower

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It's an unlikely collaboration: A 21-year-old aspiring artist in Europe is working with a 75-year-old Fairbanks linguist to carry on a dying native Alaskan language.

Guillaume Leduey, from Le Havre, France, began teaching himself Eyak from instructional DVDs a few years ago after seeing a documentary on the last known fluent speaker, Marie Smith Jones, who died in 2008. Leduey is learning how the language works by analyzing traditional Eyak tales word by word and deciding if he wants to be the torchbearer for the effort to resurrect the language.

"It's strange to learn a language that is likely to be never spoken by anyone," said Leduey, who is visiting Anchorage this month and plans to visit Cordova and see where the Eyak people lived, told the Anchorage Daily News.

Leduey, who knows or has studied at least six languages, also said his parents want him to start earning money now, and he's not sure there's grant money available to study a language that nearly no one understands anymore.

"A good question is: What's in it for him? ... He has to eat, so can he make a good living doing that?" asked Michael Krauss, who studied Eyak for decades as a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is teaching it to Leduey.

Eyak was spoken by the indigenous people along the Gulf of Alaska coast, from what is now Cordova east to Yakutat. The Eyak culture was already being absorbed by the Tlingits when Americans came to Alaska, Krauss said.

"The advent of the canneries and the Copper River railroad did in what was left of the Eyaks," he said.

There were never more than a few hundred Eyak in known history and theirs was the first of the 20 Alaska Native languages to go extinct, Krauss said.

"Eyak is predictably the first, but the question is, who is next?" said Krauss, who founded the Alaska Native Language Center, has written an Eyak dictionary and collected, translated and edited stories.

The last known fluent Native speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008. Anchorage filmmaker Laura Bliss Spaan directed a documentary about her in 1995.

Leduey, who had been researching endangered languages online, tracked down Bliss Spaan and persuaded her to send him copies of instructional DVDs she created.

Mona Curry, a daughter of Marie Smith Jones, says there are fewer than 120 people who are even half-Eyak. Her mother was told not to speak Eyak in school, and the family didn't speak it at home. She said she never thought she could learn a second language, but she recently found out she has a knack for it. She recently met Leduey.

"It was really emotional to hear you say you know the word for 'Thank you,' " Curry told him. "What is that word?"

"Awa'ahdah," Leduey replied.

Curry told him to say it again, concentrating on the pronunciation.

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Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com