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Fairbanks Couple Reflects on Lifetime Devoted to Study of Alaska Native Cultures

FAIRBANKS — The map linguist Michael Krauss created in 1974 wasn’t the first of its kind, but its careful attention to detail has secured its lasting impact for understanding and documenting Alaska Native languages.

Krauss arrived in Fairbanks in 1960 to teach French at what was then the University of Alaska. He became the first head of the Alaska Native Language Center when it was created in 1972, and devoted his life to defending, promoting and preserving Alaska’s indigenous languages.

Now 82, Krauss reflected on his time in Alaska with his wife, Molly Lee, at their home off Ballaine Road, many of their collections packed away in preparation for their move to a retirement community in the Lower 48.

Krauss and Lee have both committed their lives to studying Alaska Native culture, Krauss through language and Lee through artwork.

“I’m an object person and fell in love with an Eskimo basket,” said Lee, who worked as the University of Alaska Museum’s ethnology curator and specialized in understanding baleen basketry. “There was no way that you could Alaska Native art in the way art history was taught in those days, and I never wanted anything else but to study it.”

Baleen basketry was often looked down upon or excused by academics because they were created almost exclusively for tourists. It wasn’t considered a legitimate field of study, she said, but that only helped drive her ambition to study it.

It was a similar story behind Krauss’ work to document Alaska’s indigenous languages. Decades of educational policies had decimated many Alaska Native languages and there was no one to advocate, let alone study and document them. He wanted to do what he could to protect them, he said.

“You had languages being actively ushered out of existence by the system and no linguists to do anything like make writing systems and establish the languages in education and give them a chance to survive,” he said. “The reason I came here and stayed here is simply and exclusively to do what I could for the fate of Alaska Native languages.”

His passion for endangered languages was driven in large part by his study of the revival of the Hebrew language, he said.

“I began to understand how a language can hold a people together, those scattered minorities,” he said. “I carried this tradition with me to Alaska. It’s the job of making as complete as possible a record of the language and its grammar, vocabulary and the traditional knowledge of the people quite literally in their own terms.”

For the creation of the map, Krauss spent much of his time interviewing tuberculosis patients at the Alaska Native Service Hospital behind a surgical mask.

“The hospital was filled with people from villages all over,” he said. “All I had to do is go up and down the hall and talk to wonderful people, often with masks on, so it was a little harder to get some of the consonants, but it was wonderful and sad, but that’s the way things were back then.”

The map, which has since been revised, paints Alaska in large swaths, using similar colors to represent the different dialect subdivisions of Athabascan and Yupik languages, as well as Tlingit and Haida. The map also takes into record the size of communities and how likely the children are to speak the language, a nod to the danger many languages face of extinction.

“Each Alaska Native language has its own intricate beauty, a highly complex and regular grammar and enormous vocabulary,” he wrote in the corner of the revised 1982 version of the map. “This has been developed over the thousands of years they have lived in this area.”

But Krauss’ biggest legacy likely rests in the work he has done in documenting the now-extinct Eyak language throughout his career. He spent three summers in the 1960s recording traditional stories as told by Anna Nelson Harry, which became the basis of his book “In Honor of Eyak.” A heavy green tome in his library is the Eyak dictionary that was put together with the help of Lena Nacktan and Marie Smith-Jones. Smith-Jones had been the last fluent speaker of Eyak for 17 years when she died in 2008.

Krauss gets a little misty-eyed talking about the women who gave so much of their time and energy to working with him to document the language. He said they were well-aware of the likelihood Eyak could die with them.

“They understood perfectly well the whole thing and that’s why they worked so well with an impossible bastard like me,” he said. “Poor Lena, for example, when she would get peeved or impatient with my pestering her she would creatively come up with all these wonderful Eyak phrases of irritation.”

Now Eyak is experiencing its own revival. It was the focus of a culture camp in Cordova this summer, driven by the Eyak people themselves.

There are now many similar efforts by tribes and groups to revitalize their languages often using new technology such as mobile apps and interactive websites for lessons.

He said he’s proud of the archive and materials he’s gathered during his career and said it’s now up to others to continue the difficult work of preserving and promoting languages.

“The only thing that’s guaranteed is the physical memory of the languages in the archive,” he said. “The rest is up to the Native people and the people of Alaska to commit themselves to the future of this heritage, which is uniquely Alaskan.”

At the University of Alaska Museum of the North, Lee oversaw much of the effort to return cultural relics from the museum’s collection to the tribes and cultures that produced them. Both Lee and Krauss strove to show Alaska Native culture more respect than the early days of academia in Alaska.

It’s a stark departure from the work of early researchers like Otto Geist, who was notable for filling the museum’s archives with tons of Alaska Native artifacts he had dug up without any careful documentation.

“They’re in and of themselves such strikingly beautiful objects, but we’ll never know as much as we could have if he hadn’t done that,” she said.

And even as Lee and Krauss look to move out of state, they said they have more work to do. For Lee, it’s finishing her work on baskets, and for Krauss, it’s finishing the grammar dictionary for Eyak.

“The most painful part of it for both of us is that both of us have been here for our work with Alaska Native people and culture,” he said. “The most painful part of leaving here is leaving the wonderful people. That’s the real reason of us being here is to work with those people.”


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