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The Eyak People and Their Culture

By Joe Cook (Eyak), 2008

(This is adapted from a transcript of an interview for the Smithsonian exhibition Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)

Sea, Land, Rivers

I'm of Eyak descent out of the Cordova area. My grandmother is full-blooded Eyak. I was born in Seattle, but I've been in Cordova since I was six months old. I was raised there, raised on the boats. When I was growing up, we lived down in Old Town pretty much. We weren't too far from the old village site.

We're on the edge of Copper River Delta there, which borders the Prince William Sound. On the east side of town, out on the Delta, you'd see a big flat with ponds and a river running through it, lots of ducks and geese. Out off shore you'd see the barrier islands where there's a lot of nesting going on. You'd see habitat for fish. In the inland area, you'd see mountains and glaciers. You'd see goats, bear, black and brown. And out on the Sound area, you'd see seal, sea otters and fish streams. It's a beautiful place.

In the springtime it's on the flight path for all the birds coming back from the south, just hundreds of thousands of sandpipers, ducks and geese. Any kind of bird you can imagine is passing through there.  Some of them stay the summer. When I was a kid, we used to gather the eggs. My grandmother used to gather eggs to eat, and we hunt them in the fall. Out on the barrier islands it was mostly seagulls that would nest out there, and that's where we'd get our fresh eggs in the springtime. We'd be out clam digging in the summertime. My parents used to dig clams, back before the clam crash, prior to the earthquake there. Cordova used to be the clam capital of the world back then, razor clams. After the earthquake, it raised up the land quite a bit so clams weren't as plentiful, and they're still not. Clams we pretty much have to get from Cook Inlet now.

In early spring, we have the hooligan move in. That's the first fish to come in, and then herring after that in the Sound. In the first part of May, the reds and kings (salmon) start to show up, from May until the middle of July. Then we start switching over to silver salmon, which run until September. It's actually a pretty long season, for fisheries on the Delta. The Sound starts early July and then runs through August, along there now with the hatcheries. There's a lot of fish there. When I was growing up, my uncles would take me out hunting and fishing with them. They taught me a lot. They wouldn't take me goat hunting, but they took me on the boats and around. My grandmother used to take me with her on occasion to the different fish camps she had.

Community and Family

From the stories I've heard and read, we were a small tribe. We were the in-between people. We were the traders. We were the go-betweens, between the different factions outside of us. And it seemed to work for us. Being as how we were a small tribe, that was the way we had to be, otherwise we would have probably been wiped out. Everybody in my family is able to get along through negotiation and trading. I think we're still carrying on as the go-betweens. We can get people together, talk things out. My brother Dune Lankard, he started the Eyak Preservation Council. He's trying to do the same thing at the village. It's a work in progress. We lost it all before, and we're just starting to get it back now. And I think we can.

I've fished ever since I was small. I think I had my first boat when I was twelve. I grew up on the water. My family has always fished, and we've always given to people haven't been able to get their own. In the village of Eyak we've got a program now where we get early fish, an early fishery so we can go out and take some early kings and reds. We pass them out to the elders and members of the village, which has really helped out a lot because we don't have that many fishermen anymore in the village. It's working out well, and that's through the Ilanka Culture Center. The village is getting stronger in all of the programs we've got going. We're growing it back.

It's hard to tell what was going on back in my grandmother's time, when she was younger, or back before her. You had the railroad come in and copper mines. I don't think it did my tribe any good. And they had big flu epidemics that wiped out I can't remember how many, but it was probably half the tribe. We had villages at Alaganik and at Eyak Lake. But it was back before my time, and my grandmother didn't talk a whole lot about it. So I'm assuming by her not talking about it, it wasn't a good time. 

Back in the early '60s, I remember Dr. Michael Krauss (linguist, Alaska Native Language Center) coming to town and talking with my grandmother (Lena Saska Nacktan), Sophie Borodkin and Marie Smith Jones. The only time I heard the language was when my grandmother would talk with Marie or Sophie. They'd just be in a world of their own. A friend of mine and I thought about having my grandmother teach it to us, but it never happened. I'm still kicking myself for not doing that. Marie died this year. She was the last fluent speaker. So, it's a language that's technically dead now, although the Native Village of Eyak and the Eyak Preservation Council have it all on tape and the dictionary. It's there for whoever wants to learn it.

Ceremony and Celebration

My grandmother's family, they were brought up when they couldn't speak the language. My grandmother still spoke Eyak, but my mother never learned it. She had to go off to boarding school in Sitka. A lot of our inner culture for the Eyaks was lost, or just was pretty much banned, I think, during my mom's time, so I really wasn't brought up with it too much myself. My gram taught me a few things, but it just wasn't there for a long time. They tried to pretty much just take away the Native culture, and I think they pretty much did.

There was school and government, from what my mom said. When my mom was going to school, she said they had a sign in the theater that Natives were only allowed in the balcony section. They had it a lot tougher than I did. I was brought up in both worlds: White and Native. My mom said that that there's nobody better than you, so if there's nobody than you, then you're better than nobody. So actually, I had it pretty good. I could walk both sides of the street and still do to this day.

It's a lot better today. At the Native Village of Eyak, we've got the Ilanka Culture Center going. We've got classes, and we've got dance classes and a dance group. We're growing it back. It's never going to go back to the way it was, but at least we're bringing back the culture. We've got a small museum we've built, and we'll get back some of our artifacts that were taken from us years ago so we can learn about our history. Getting our programs going – the dance groups, the crafts – it can only better. I see good things happening to us.

Tags: Eyak, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Sea, Land, Rivers: Smoking fish

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Sea, Land, Rivers: Historic village

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Community, Family: Eyak language

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Community, Family: Local activism

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Ceremony, Celebration: Regalia

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Ceremony, Celebration: Dance group

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Adze head

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Amulet

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Axe head

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Basket

National Museum of the American Indian

Ladle

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Earrings, Rings

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

The Eyak People and Their Culture

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Map of Eyak Territory in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska