The crashed fisheries, oiled coastline and clearcut logging in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989 was almost the final nail in the coffin for the Eyak people. That is, until a group of activists, led by Dune Lankard, dedicated their lives to a legacy of preservation in the name of the Eyaks. The Eyaks were a small tribe. The last full-blooded Eyak, Chief Marie Smith-Jones passed on in 2008, declaring the Eyaks the first fully assimilated Alaska native tribe and an extinct language. The Eyaks called the Copper River Delta and neighboring coastline around what is now Cordova, Alaska home for over 3500 years.
Neighboring tribes, Russian enslavement and later American industrialization had a fatal impact on the Eyak people who had made home on the only habitable areas of coast sandwiched by wetlands and glaciers. Their story is of a resilient people who understood sustainability and survival, but like so many other indigenous cultures, their resources were coveted by others who did not value sustainability.
Fast forward a hundred years and the unsustainable development was finally stopped by Dune Lankard and his team of dedicated activists and advocates. Dune founded the Eyak Preservation Council (EPC) to honor Eyak heritage and to conserve wild salmon culture and habitat through education, awareness and the promotion of sustainable life ways for all peoples. There was a silver lining to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. In 1991, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council was formed to restore Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska to the “healthy, productive, world-renowned ecosystem” that existed before the spill and created a Restoration Fund. These funds helped the Eyak Preservation Council stop clear-cut logging in the Prince William Sound and on the Copper River Delta.
For the last 30 years, EPC has advocated for a legacy of preservation in the name of the Eyak people in a variety of ways including land preservation efforts, legal defense and direct action. The current effort is focused on retiring the subsurface Bering River Coalfield patents on the Eastern Copper River Delta. EPC along with The Native Conservancy (also founded by Dune Lankard) will play an important role in carbon sequestration with their Keep it in the Ground Initiative and protecting wild salmon habitat in perpetuity.
In addition to land preservation, the Eyak legacy is being advocated by the Eyak Cultural Foundation, a project focused on preservation language and culture. A team of linguists, scientists and social scientists are mapping cultural sites that will allow the Eyak culture to live on for generations to come.
While being the first fully assimilated Alaska Native tribe may be very sad, the work being done to leave a legacy of preservation in the name of the Eyak people sets a precedence for all indigenous people and gives us hope that we can find sustainable ways to develop our economies, keep languages alive and teach our children about the first peoples who defined a place.