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Eyak

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In 1869, Lt. Comdr. Moser, of the United States Navy, first reported the Eyak as the “Hyaks,” an Aleut village and in 1880 as “Ihiak.” The area has historically been the home to the Aleuts, with the addition of migrating Athabaskan and Tlingit natives who called themselves Eyak. The Eyaks were never a very large group and as time passed, they found themselves located between two very powerful and conflicting groups; the Sugpiaq and the Tlingit. The Eyaks had a language similar to the Tlingit, a circumstance that created a predisposition for friendly interaction between the two groups. The Sugpiaq, however, were less friendly. As the Eyaks migrated, they increasingly came into contact with the Sugpiaq, who had moved north in the response to the pressure from the Tlingit expansion from the south. Disease and the abuse by Russian fur traders and cannery workers lead to the eventual relocation of the Eyak. Rather than fighting and risking the small number of people they had, the group either moved on or assimilated. This is a possible reason why the Eyak settlements were so small, traditionally. The avoidance of war and aggressive conflict was one of the Eyaks’ most successful strategies. The Eyak are now represented by approximately 50 people but there remains only one Eyak speaker, Chief Marie Smith Jones, born in 1920 and who currently lives in Anchorage. Comprehensive documentation of Eyak has been carried out since the 1960s by Dr. Michael Krauss, to include his edition of traditional stories, historic accounts, and poetic compositions by Anna Nelson Harry, an Eyak speaker since deceased. The edition is available through the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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