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Program seeks to revitalize extinct Eyak language

By Heather Hintze 7:31 PM June 25, 2014

For Barbara Sappah, Eyak is more than just a language — it’s a connection to her past. Her grandmother, Marie Smith Jones, was the last native speaker when she passed away in 2008.

“It’s a piece of my heart and it’s something you can’t really get rid of,” Sappah said. “You feel it in your gut about how special we are and who we are. We have to honor our people from the past and we can do that today by learning our language and our culture.”

With a grant from the Administration for Native Americans, Sappah helped start the Eyak Language Revitalization Project.

It’s an online program called “dAXunhyuuga” which means “the people.”

“The first step to that [revitalization] is learning the language. Then we can learn songs and then we can learn dance. So it really is opening the gateway. Whatever we create is going to be Eyak because we’re creating it so we get to define what that is moving forward,” Sappah said.

Eyak is considered an extinct language; only two people in the world still speak it. Guilluame Leduey is a Frenchman who taught himself to speak Eyak. He’s working with Dr. Michael Krauss, a retired University of Fairbanks professor and the world’s leading Eyak language specialist.

Together they’ve documented the written the alphabet and created an online dictionary where you can also hear the sound of the word.

The program is free and there will be a new lesson posted every week for the next two years.

The words can be difficult to pronounce.

“ilah qe’xleh,” Sappah said in a slow, guttural manner.

She said don’t let the unfamiliar sounds stop you though.

“It’s not that hard!” she laughed.

For her, the lessons are part of a larger personal journey: A mission to keep her grandmother’s memory alive and pass down the voice of her people to her children.

“It makes my heart sing,” she laughed. “My daughter will talk to me in Eyak. She’ll say small words. I’ll tuck her in at night and tell her ‘ilah qe’xleh’, and she’ll say, ‘’ilah qe’xleh, Mommy.’ That means, ‘I love you.’”

It’s a love for the past she hopes will translate into success, revitalizing the lost language of her ancestors.

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