Life after death: Film documents efforts to revive Alaska Native language
Eyak is an Alaska Native language recently declared extinct after Marie Smith Jones, the last full-blooded Eyak, died in 2008.
But descendants of the tribe have been working to bring the language back, with a little help from across the Atlantic Ocean.
French filmmaker Vincent Bonnay has been documenting the tribe’s progress over the last six years. His movie, Sur le Bout de la Langue, which is French for On the Tip of the Tongue, airs in Anchorage this Friday.
It shares the plight of the Eyak people that once inhabited modern-day Cordova, Alaska.
"It was important to make something not just nice, but just honest," Bonnay said in an interview about the piece. "And to tell the story to people just like me who were not aware of the dying of languages."
Bonnay’s film features another Frenchman named Guillaume LeDuey, who is working alongside Eyak descendants to preserve their language.
In 2002, at the age of 13, LeDuey came across a map of Alaska with information about Native languages. When he discovered Eyak's dire situation, he took it upon himself to learn how to speak it.
LeDuey's endeavor caught Bonnay's attention.
"It started as ‘Oh, this incredible Frenchman: That's the story!,’" Bonnay explained. "And you go there, you meet the people and you realize that oh no, it's more than just this incredible Frenchman. It's a community, it's a people.”
Bonnay began following LeDuey's interactions with Eyak descendants as they worked together to revitalize the language and culture.
"We became invisible, even to other Alaska Native tribes," Jenna May, President of the Eyak Cultural Foundation explained in Bonnay's film. "We're not invisible anymore and we're not going away."
Now, the journey towards revitalization will be visible on the big screen, and the production will live on in state archives.
A free screening of Sur le Bout de la Langue will be held on Friday, Feb. 15 from 2-4 p.m. at the Z.J. Loussac Library in Anchorage.
Editor's note: An initial version of this story misspelled Guillaume LeDuey's last name as LeDuay.
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