By Mary Babic and Barclay Kopchak
Honoring Eyak recognizes the voices, heritage and spiritual journey of our existence.
1. Who are we?
2. What distinct characteristics define Eyak people?
3. What historical events and origins shaped our existence in Chugach Region?
I'm connected to the Eyak people who lived here. If there were any way to be closer, it would be doing this dance with the salmon. I feel like I can go back a few thousand years. Every year I do this, it becomes clearer why I was brought back to the salmon. I was born here, I'm part of the land, the fish brings energy to me." -Pam Smith, Cordova
Eyak Elder Anna Nelson Harry shared the only documented origin story of the Eyak people. She described how the Eyak people ‘boated down’ the Copper River in ‘cottonwood-like canoes’ from the interior of Alaska and discovered the abundant resources of the Copper River delta.
Over where they had come the river there are no seals. Nor are there many salmon, that swim up that far. When they came down the river they found all these things. They saw seals. Ripe salmon, cockles, eggs, birds, geese, mallards.
So Eyak became a village. They were numerous at Mountain Slough, and Mountain Slough became a village too.i
This origin story is confirmed by linguists who trace the origins of the Eyak language to that of ‘Proto-Athabaskan,’ ancestor of both the Athabaskan languages of Alaska’s Interior and Navajo. Scholars hypothesize that the Eyaks travelled down river to the coast some three thousand years ago and became cut off from the Interior by the glaciated mountains and severe rapids of the Copper River where their culture and language developed in isolation. Their territory extended along the Gulf of Alaska from Yakutat to Cordova, between that of two relatively larger and aggressive groups, the Tlingits to the southeast and the Sugpiat to the northwest. The Eyak were not a sea power and unlike Sugpiat and the Tlingits they did not usually hunt sea mammals. The Eyak harvested the resources of the near shore, rivers, and coastal mountains and sometimes served as ‘middlemen’ in trade transactions among their neighbors.
The Eyak considered themselves more closely related to the Tlingit than to the Sugpiat. Not only are their languages similar but both practiced moiety exogamy (marriage of a man outside his clan), and traced their clan lineages through the matrilineal line. Both the Eyak and the Tlingit built clan long houses (Raven and Eagle clans), and raised totem poles. Both built dugout canoes. The Eyak were more likely to trade and intermarry with the Tlingits to the southeast than with the Sugpiaq of Prince William Sound with whom they had a more adversarial relationship. The Tlingits ‘raided and traded’ their way up the coast. So Yakutat, which began as an Eyak village was gradually dominated by the Tlingit. By 1800 the Eyaks were sufficiently assimilated into Tlingit culture that Yakutat was predominantly Tlingit speaking.
That left two main Eyak villages, both in the Cordova area: Alaganek, and Eyak, where the Eyak language persisted. The last Native speaker of Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008. However, with the linguistic preservation work of Anna Nelson Harry, Lena Saska Nacktan, and Marie Smith Jones with Dr. Michael Krauss and more recently a young Frenchman, Guillaume LeDuey, active efforts are underway to revive the language (See http://eyakpeople.com/). The Eyak word for themselves is ‘daXunhyuu’ – the people. But the word Eyak itself comes from the Sugst’un, igyaaq, meaning ‘throat,’ here the ‘throat of the lake’ where Lake Eyak empties into the Eyak River , where the traditional village of Eyak was located.
Chief Marie Smith Jones Prays for the Eyaks
Pam Smith, Cordova, speaking about being Eyak
Jenna May, Eyak Identity
dAXunhyuuga' ~ New Life for the Eyak Language
Eyak - groundhog man by Anna Neslon Harry
Bill Smith, Valdez, Honoring Eyak
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