Marie Smith Jones passed away in January 2008. She was better known as Udach’ Kuqax’a’a’ch’, a name that means, “A sound that calls people from afar”. She was 89, blind, a heavy smoker and a reformed alcoholic.
But who was Marie really, and what made Canadian journalist Mark Abley want to tell her story in The Guardian? And why was her death termed, “…not only a personal tragedy, but also a cultural disaster”? Marie was the last person in the world who spoke the indigenous language of the Eyak, a tribal group in southern Alaska. Her death thus marked the disappearance of a language, but also of the identity and culture of an entire people.
Languages are more than just a means of communication. They are repositories of history and tradition, and they play an essential role in education andsocial integration. Despite their inestimable value, many languages are disappearing at an alarming rate around the world. Most of them are indigenous languages, such as the one spoken by the Eyak. The numbers speak for themselves: 370 million people who live in 90 countries are the standard bearers of five thousand cultures and 2,680 indigenous languages that are in danger worldwide.
For this reason, to raise awareness about the importance of local languages and preserve the cultural diversity of our planet, the United Nations has declared 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages (#IYIL2019).
This initiative dates back to 2007, with the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and has culminated in 2019 as a series of international events whose aim is to effect real social change on the themes of indigenous languages and the rights of those who speak them. As Federico Fellini once put it, “A different language is a different view of life”.
To learn more about the IYIL2019 initiative, visit https://en.iyil2019.org/
*(Editor’s note) awa’ahdah means “thank you” in the Eyak language