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14 Eyak The Delta of the Copper River has for the past century been the final home of the Eyak people and their language. Today the language is all but extinct. The prehistory of the people is unknown, but they are believed somehow to have become separated more than three thousand years ago from ancestors of today’s Athabaskans, possibly somewhere in what is now interior Alaska or the Yukon Territory. As a result of the separation, their language diverged from a related proto-Athabaskan language (from which today’s Athabaskan languages are later descendants). Thus Eyak is not an Athabaskan language, and as observed by Michael Krauss (upon whom we have relied for our information here), it is no closer linguistically to Ahtna than it is to its most geographically distant relative, Navajo. At the time of European contact, Eyak territory extended along the Gulf of Alaska from southeast of present-day Yakutat nearly to present-day Cordova . In this position, as a small coastal people, the Eyaks were vulnerable to their larger seagoing neighbors, the Tlingits and the Alutiit (inhabitants of the coastal lands westward who spoke a Yupik language). From the southeast the Tlingits moved onto the shore lands of the Eyaks and slowly assimilated them. The Eyaks pushed northwest against the Alutiit, taking the Copper River Delta and the lake, with a village site, bearing an Alutiiq name, Igya’aq, which they pronounced Iiyaaq, in English Eyak. It means ‘‘throat’’ in the sense of outlet from the lake into a river, now known as the Eyak River. The people themselves became identified by this name, but relations between them and the Alutiit remained hostile. On the other hand, although the Tlingit language bore an even more distant relationship to Eyak than did proto-Athabaskan, Tlingit and Eyak cultures had important resemblances, especially owing to Tlingit dominance and expansion. Extant Eyak narratives appear to have been strongly influenced by Tlingit oral tradition and to a somewhat lesser extent by Alutiiq. Similarities be-  Eyak tween Eyak and Athabaskan stories may be ancient (from storytelling in the time of their common linguistic ancestor) as well as recent (from contact especially with Ahtna). The Eyaks distinguished between the two major genres, as Krauss has pointed out, in their language tsahkł (distant-time narratives) and wəx .ah (historical accounts). Prominent among tsahkł was the Raven cycle. Krauss has identified several other subclasses, including stories of animals only, of animals interacting with humans, of land otters (‘‘which occupy a special place in Eyak folklore’’), and of other beings not clearly human or animal. He also regards the short moralistic tales designed for instruction of children as tsahkł because they are developed with characters typical of the genre. The other major genre, wəx .ah, includes narratives of warfare, in particular nineteenth-century battles with the Alutiit, and accounts of shamanistic activity. Anthropologists Kaj Birket-Smith and Frederica de Laguna were the first to collect Eyak tales, when in the spring of , they spent seventeen days at Cordova. Old Man Dude, one of their informants, reported that all distanttime narratives were supposed to be sung. Galushia Nelson, their principal informant, added that they were supposed to be repeated word-perfect, but he did not remember which were to be sung. He also stated that each story had a traditional title. Mr. Nelson had been educated at the Chemawa boarding school for Indians at Salem, Oregon, and had lived away from Alaska for ten years. Because of his fluency in English, he was the ideal interpreter (in both senses) for Birket-Smith and de Laguna. In telling the stories, however, he appears to have relied almost wholly upon his wife, Anna, either through her prompting while he narrated or by translating orally (sometimes in writing) into English as she narrated in Eyak. Conversely , the exact nature of his influence upon the stories as recorded by Birket-Smith and de Laguna, who, of course, did not know the Eyak language , is not known. They published their detailed ethnographical study, including the narratives, in . Twenty-five years later, Krauss began his intensive study of Eyak with the few remaining speakers of the language. One of those speakers, who became his paramount collaborator, was Anna Harry, widow of Galushia Nelson (who had died in ), remarried to Sampson Harry, a Tlingit of Yakutat. Mrs. Harry herself had moved there, learning the Tlingit language, adapting to Tlingit ways, but remaining inherently, individualistically, Eyak. She had been born on...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780803202368
MARC Record
OCLC
607194129
Pages
394
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-10
Language
English
Open Access
No
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