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Eliza Jones, born either at Toyenaalyeez Denh (Cut-Off) or at a nearby camp, and raised in Huslia, Alaska, devotes her life to teaching Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan) language and writing about its culture and traditions. Eliza taught for many years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a Koyukon Athabascan linguist. Upon her retirement in 1990, she was bestowed with an honorary doctorate of letters.
Eliza’s parents were Josie and Little Peter. They lived in camps along the Koyukuk River. Her dad died when she was seven. There was a measles epidemic in 1942 or ’43. Her mother Josie remarried to Francis Olin, who also raised Marie Yaska and Catherine Attla. Her late grandpa Olin told them stories every night. Late Catherine Attla published several books in which she retold these stories in Denaakk’e and Eliza translated them.
Eliza’s siblings, from oldest to youngest were: Elsie, Ellen, Cecelia, Joe, Eliza, Attla and Josslin. Eliza’s clan, which follow the matrilineal side, is Toneedze Ghelseełne ‘middle of the stream’ clan. This clan is a similar to a liason between the Bedzeyh Te Hʉt’aane (caribou) and Noltseene (bear) clan. The former is related to things of the sky and the latter to things of the earth.
When Eliza was a child they lived off of the land in two different camps. They trapped small game like rabbits and ptarmigan for food and trapped weasels, mink, lynx, and fox for the furs. When they were growing up they were close to other camps, especially Lydia Simon’s camp. Being around all these great storytellers and culture bearers provided Eliza with a strong foundation in which traditional values and beliefs were instilled.
Eliza’s Denaakk’e name is Neełtenoyeneełno, which means ‘she has versatile talent’. Her grandmother, Mrs. Cecelia Happy, who helped raise her, gave her this name. The name is apt, because she often has more than one project going on at a time.
In 1958 Eliza and Benedict Jones married and she moved to his hometown of Koyukuk. Benedict’s Denaakk’e name K’øghøt’o’oodenoo¬’o means ‘he works with a lot of people’. It was his grandfather, Louis Pilot of Kokrines’ name. He was born at “ 9 Mile“, which is the family fish camp below Koyukuk. His parents were Jessie “Deggeyenee” Edwin and Harry Jones and step-father Andrew Edwin. His maternal grandmother, Julia “Ts’ooghoołeen’ ” Nelson, was one of the village’s matriarchs.
Ben and Eliza’s had ten children: JoAnn Malamute, Josie Dayton, Cora Jones, Charlene Jones (dec.), Cindy Pilot, Vernon Jones (dec.), Susan Paskvan, Benedict Jones, Jr. (dec.), Cecelia Grant, and Julie Jones (dec.). They raised their children in Koyukuk and Fairbanks. In the summer they moved to fish camps where they taught them a strong work ethic through hauling water, chopping wood, cleaning, cutting and hanging fish. The elder’s say it is bad luck to count your grandchildren, but to count your blessings. Of that there are many.
Alaska’s Native languages have tied generations of Native people together, giving each generation a sense of identity. Western education, assimilation and the passing of traditional Native language speakers have threatened many language dialects with extinction. Eliza devotes her life to teaching the Koyukon language and writing about its culture and traditions. She taught in villages, schools and urban community gatherings. Eliza’s willingness to share the Koyukon language has reenergized language revitalization efforts in Interior communities.
Through her career at Alaska Native Language Center she interviewed elders throughout the Doyon region. She meticulously documented stories, songs, genealogical information, place names, and “high words” in Denaakk’e. She continues to work for Yukon-Koyukuk School District as a Language Specialist. She continues to travel to villages to help transcribe songs that were composed in the early 1900s to present. In addition, in working with local elders, they give the youth of today Denaakk’e names, which belonged to the children’s ancestors.
Eliza has written and translated stories, developed and taught curriculum and conducted research on the language of the middle Yukon and Koyukuk rivers. Recently, she has translated documents for Tanana Chiefs Conference for their “tobacco free” campaign; phrases for Doyon, Limited; election ballots for the State of Alaska; Arctic Council announcements; closer to home, helped many people write traditional memorial songs for potlatches. In 2013, she went on a boat trip from Koyukuk to Hughes with scientists and youth to research place names.
In addition to her formal work with the language, she served on the Gana-a’ Yoo board of directors (serving several Yukon River villages), the Ella B. Vernetti Community School Committee in Koyukuk; the Catholic church pastoral councils and Yukon River Fisheries advisory board. She has presented at conferences around the state, the nation and in Japan.
Eliza and her husband of 58 years, Benedict Jones Sr., make their home in Koyukuk. In their retirement, Both Ben and Eliza enjoy putting away tl’eeyegge baabe (Native food) such as salmon, berries, moose, beaver, and waterfowl. They are active in teaching these skills plus others such as sewing, story telling, and positive Athabascan values. Ben puts in a net as soon as the ice goes out and keeps it out until freeze up. As soon as the ice is thick enough he sets an under-water net. Eliza can be found making traditional kkaakkene (boots), mittens, and beadwork for her grandchildren.
In her 77 years, Eliza has humbly dedicated herself others. Her life’s work of teaching the Koyukon language continues to inspire new generations of language learners and culture bearers. Eliza quietly speaks her language and teaches the old ways demonstrating that one person can make a difference.
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/hrr5sEOtMuo