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Linguistic and Ecological Labor in Eyak, Alaska

Authors: Jen Rose Smith*, University of California, Davis
Topics: Cultural Geography, Indigenous Peoples, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Alaska, linguistics, Alaska Native Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, ecological labor
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In August 2019 linguist Michael Krauss passed away, leaving behind his life’s work in supporting the preservation of Alaska Native languages, particularly the Eyak language. Also in August 2019, the Eyak Cultural Foundation (ECF) held their sixth annual language and cultural revitalization camp in Eyak territory. Based on the archive that Krauss and Eyak elders created in the 1960’s, Eyak people continue to gather together in their original homelands to practice traditional and modern language and craft. In this paper, I excavate the conditions of linguistic knowledge production of the Eyak language and highlight the diminished role of Eyak labor that constituted its creation. The labor of linguistic knowledge production by Native peoples is feminized and racialized as it is overlooked, and I demonstrate that it also understood as a given, implied, and assumed form of work. In rearticulating the Eyak labor of language documentation as an intentional and agential choice by Eyak elders, I argue that theirs is also a kind of ecological labor (DiNovelli-Lang and Hébert, 2018), as ecological labor should issue naturally and uninhibitedly from Native bodies as “stewards of the land.” Though overdetermined as assumed, willing laborers on behalf of preservation of both language and land, I instead highlight the craft, skill, and foresight of Eyak elders in their choices to document their language, place-names, and material/cultural practices despite their compromised positions in relation to the authorized producers of knowledge who were and are implicated in original dispossessions and their iterative afterlives.

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