It’s not every day (yet) that we get to observe the moment of extinction. Today is one such day, however, as we acknowledge the death of Marie Smith Jones. She helped the University of Alaska compile an Eyak dictionary. She was the last one to speak the language on this planet.
“To the best of our knowledge, she was the last full-blooded Eyak alive,” her daughter Bernice Galloway told the Associated Press.
Twenty other Alaskan languages are in danger of disappearing, mostly because the people who could have learned from people like Marie Smith Jones grew up at a time when it was considered wrong to speak something other than English.
The scenario was well documented a few years ago in an MPR News project:
“I was always talking in Ojibwe in the classroom,” said Skinaway. “And the teacher never liked to have me be so disruptive, you know, talking to my other classmates. Some of the older ones used to call me a dumb Indian because I couldn’t talk English.”
“It is very important, because that’s the way that was given to us by the Creator as Anishinaabe people,” said Smallwood. “We were given ways to communicate with the Creator. And that’s why it’s important, not only in this world, but when we move on to the next world, go to the spirit world. We need that language.”
The extinction of the language, in other words, didn’t just happen: it was encouraged. A perfect irony since the U.S. recently adopted a law to try to save the languages.
Here’s an interesting clickable map to explore some of these languages.
Tangent-time: Yesterday the New York Times reported on the case of another extinction on earth. The ivory billed woodpecker sighting in Arkansas a few years ago spawned an economic boom for a poor town, until it went bust amid conclusions that the alleged sighting was probably incorrect. It’s gone for good — the town, that is. And so is the woodpecker.