Eliza Jones spent her earliest years in camps along the Koyukuk River, where in the evenings she would listen to adults tell stories in her native language. Years later, when she saw that language beginning to disappear, she decided to make sure it didn’t.
Jones worked for 20 years at UAF documenting Denaakk’e, the Koyukon language. Her efforts culminated in the publication of the Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary in 2000.
Jones shared authorship of the dictionary with a man who died before she was born — the Rev. Jules Jetté, a Catholic Jesuit missionary. Jette, who came to Alaska in 1898, learned to speak and write Denaakk’e but never published his full collection of words before his death in 1927.
Jones was born to Josie and Little Peter just over a decade later in the area of Cutoff, a village near Huslia along the Koyukuk. Her father and many of her siblings died in the epidemics of Western diseases that were still devastating Alaska Native communities at that time.
In 1958, she married her husband, Benedict Jones, and they moved to the village of Koyukuk on the Yukon River. A dozen years later, after having several children, they moved to Fairbanks. Her husband went to work for the state transportation department. Jones met Michael Krauss, a UAF linguistics professor, and began working with him to document and teach Denaak’e.
“I decided I wanted to preserve what I learned as a child as much as I could,” Jones said while being inducted to the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016. “I worked with many, many elders, recording their stories, recording family history, recording place names. Eventually a dictionary that I worked on for many, many, many years got published.”
UAF presented her with an honorary doctorate in 1990.
After retirement that year, the couple moved back to Koyukuk. They remain active in language preservation efforts, including in recent years an effort to document traditional place names in the Koyukuk River region.
When accepting the Hall of Fame award in 2016, Jones said she was grateful of the recognition given her achievements, then joked about one of her regrets.
“I know it wasn’t perfect. I made a lot of mistakes. I mean, the dictionary is called Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary. Where the heck is the Native word in there? Now I think about it and I think, ‘Why didn’t I call it Denaakk’e?’” she said. “But you do what you do, best you can.”
More online about Eliza Jones:
The UAF Rasmuson Library’s Project Jukebox biography and interview.
The Alaska Native Language Center site for the Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary.
An article about her speech to the First Alaskans Institute’s annual Elders and Youth Conference in 2010.
A profile at the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame website.
Smithsonian Institution Alaska Navtive Collections-Athabascan short biography on Eliza
A biography of Jules Jetté.