A Sound That Calls People From Afar

Marie Smith, or Udachkuqax*a'a'ch, "a sound that calls people from afar", died 21 January 2008

Marie Smith, or Udachkuqax*a’a’ch, “a sound that calls people from afar” as she was named in her native language, died on 21 January 2008, aged 89. Born 14 May 1918 in Cordova, Alaska, she was the last living person who spoke the Eyak language, a Native American language of south-central Alaska.

I work for a language services company and while stories such as this mean that the company’s job gets a little easier, many of the people who comprise the company have a heightened awareness of language and the impending extinction of many of the world’s languages. It is an issue of concern and I think a certain pathos.

The Economist reports (Obituary: Marie Smith,” 7 February 2008):

This universe of words and observations was already fading when Marie was young. In 1933 there were 38 Eyak-speakers left, and white people with their grim faces and intrusive microphones, as they always appeared to her, were already coming to sweep up the remnants of the language. At home her mother donned a kushsl, or apron, to make cakes in an ‘isxah, or round mixing bowl; but at school “barbarous” Eyak was forbidden. It went unheard, too, in the salmon factory where Marie worked after fourth grade, canning in industrial quantities the noble fish her people had hunted with respect, naming not only every part of it but the separate stems and shoots of the red salmonberries they ate with the dried roe.

As the spoken language died, so did the stories of tricky Creator-Raven and the magical loon, of giant animals and tiny homunculi with fish-spears no bigger than a matchstick. People forgot why “hat” was the same word as “hammer”, or why the word for a leaf, kultahl, was also the word for a feather, as though deciduous trees and birds shared one organic life. They lost the sense that lumped apples, beads and pills together as round, foreign, possibly deceiving things. They neglected the taboo that kept fish and animals separate, and would not let fish-skin and animal hide be sewn in the same coat; and they could not remember exactly why they built little wooden huts over gravestones, as if to give more comfortable shelter to the dead.

Mrs Smith herself seemed cavalier about the language for a time. She married a white Oregonian, William Smith, and brought up nine children, telling them odd Eyak words but finding they were not interested. Eyak became a language for talking to herself, or to God. Only when her last surviving older sister died, in the 1990s, did she realise that she was the last of the line. From that moment she became an activist, a tiny figure with a determined jaw and a colourful beaded hat, campaigning to stop clear-cutting in the forest (where Eyak split-log lodges decayed among the blueberries) and to get Eyak bones decently buried. She was the chief of her nation, as well as its only full-blooded member.

The Economist is right to point out that much more than just a language dies with its last speaker. An epistemology, a worldview, a critical bearer of the history of a people is lost to time as well.

In a favorite book, William Gibson’s Idoru, one of the main characters is named, in a misplaced developing world commodity fetish, Chia Pet McKenzie. I thought that was a little bit much, but the Economist also reports of Mrs. Smith that,

…she smoked too much, coughing her way through interviews in a room full of statuettes of the Pillsbury Doughboy, in which she said her spirit would live when she was dead.

Maybe Mr. Gibson wasn’t so far out on a limb after all. I sure hope one of those Pillsbury Doughboy statuettes ends up in the National Museum of the American Indian.