Alaska Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last full-blooded Eyak and last native speaker of the Eyak language, died Monday at her Anchorage apartment. She was 89.
According to her son, Leonard Smith, she was found in her bed. Her family believes she died in her sleep.
Smith Jones was well known in Alaska and beyond as an activist, and a feisty one. She took on her own native corporation in a fight against clear-cutting on ancestral lands. She oversaw the repatriation of bones when the Smithsonian Institution was forced to give them back. And she spoke at a United Nations conference on indigenous peoples.
"She'd become something of a poster child for the issue of mass language extinction," said linguist Michael Krauss, founder of the Alaska Native Languages Center. "She understood as only someone in her unique position could what it meant to be the last of her kind. And she was very much alone as the last speaker of Eyak.
"It's the first, but probably not the last at the rate things are going, of the Alaska native languages to go extinct. She understood what was at stake and its significance, and bore that tragic mantle with grace and dignity."