- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

DOUGLAS, Alaska (AP) - Alaska State Writer Laureate Nora Marks Dauenhauer sits at the dining room table in her Douglas home, a stack of books and a cup of tea in front of her. Behind her hangs a lithograph of Tlingit elder Jessie Dalton by R.T. Wallen, and, on the opposite wall, rows of family photographs. A line of windows runs along the back of the room, looking out toward Gastineau Channel. At the table, Dauenhauer thumbs through a dog-eared copy of one of her books, “Life Woven with Song,” selects a poem called “Willie,” written for her father, Tlingit master carver and fisherman Willie Marks, and begins to read. Her voice is soft and unhurried, a little wavery after 87 years of life, but measured and strong, with a gentle lilt of emotion.

“When I talked to you

in the hospital,

recovering from pneumonia,

you said to me,

you were ready to go.

‘Don’t worry, daughter,

I will be like Xakuch’ when the octopus

came up under him.’

I was lost,

adrift on an ocean of tears

with no solid place

to beach my boat.”

Dauenhauer pauses after reading, then says many of her poems are based on family members.

“I get my poems from everything I do, and also my relatives,” she said, adding that she finds her writing process hard to describe. “I’m sure I can’t tell you how to write (poetry), you just go and do it. That’s it. Your point of view comes through.”

Dauenhauer’s unique point of view as a poet and writer has been in high demand over the past couple years while serving her two-year term as Alaska Writer Laureate. Her term ended last month, and a new writer will be named to the position in January.

As Writer Laureate, the Douglas resident has traveled all over the state and beyond: to Yakutat and Skagway, Hoonah and Wrangell, Homer and Palmer, Fairbanks and Anchorage. She’s given readings in schools, led workshops in prisons, and presented at writers’ conferences. Locally she’s participated in many events including the Governor’s Awards for the Arts ceremony, the Poetry Out Loud State Finals and the Conference of Tlingit Tribes and Clans, among many other appearances.

Monday night Dauenhauer was one of a handful of local poets who participated in a reading at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, organized by Sarah Isto. Though she read first and was brief in her remarks, Dauenhauer’s presence never left the stage, as many of those who came after her celebrated her influence through their own work, including writer Susi Gregg Fowler and poet Emily Wall. Dauenhauer’s late husband, Richard, who died in August, was also honored at the event through a reading of some of his poems by Lance Twitchell. Richard also once held the position of Alaska Writer Laureate; the Dauenhauers are believed to be the only couple in U.S. history to have both held the title.

Nora Dauenhauer was also the first Alaska Native to hold the position, an honor bestowed every two years to an Alaskan writer who has “demonstrated exemplary professionalism, literary excellence and a commitment to the advancement of literary arts in Alaskan Communities.”

Alaska State Council on the Arts Executive Director Shannon Daut said Dauenhauer has been a “tremendous ambassador” for the state.

“She dedicated a lot of time and energy to visit and share her depth of knowledge with communities across the state,” Daut said in an email. “I think she especially enjoyed her work connecting young people to literature and language. I am so honored to have worked with her and Dick during her tenure. Nora’s joyous spirit, gentle nature and sly humor are a testament to an extraordinary life.”

Bilingual background

Raised in a family that followed a traditional Tlingit subsistence lifestyle, Dauenhauer spoke only Tlingit until she was 8. She said it has been an advantage to approach her writing with a bilingual background.

“For some (of my poems) I think about it in Tlingit and I translate into English, but I don’t always do that,” she said. “It helps a lot to have two languages.”

Her daughter, Le Florendo, said when she was growing up, the two languages still struggled to find a balance in her mother’s speech, making her achievements as Writer Laureate even more impressive.

“For a long time, she would confuse us because … she’d translate literally from Tlingit into English with the verb in the wrong place,” Florendo said with a chuckle, “She really had to train herself. It was a challenge.”

Poetry was an unexpected outlet for Dauenhauer. She didn’t begin writing it until she was in her 40s, after attending college at Alaska Pacific University, where she studied anthropology and met her husband, Richard, an established poet and writer. He encouraged her to pursue her own work and remained a constant source of feedback.

“Being married to Dick helped quite a bit,” Dauenhauer said. “He’s a born teacher. He was always coaching me. I miss him now.”

Wide-ranging influences

The Dauenhauers’ joint work as translators, linguists and researchers is well known in Alaska and beyond; their work continues to be instrumental in current approaches to the study and appreciation of Tlingit language and literature. But each also has their own body of work as poets. Nora Dauenhauer’s position as Writer Laureate has highlighted her individual contributions to Alaskan literature through her poetry, personal essays and plays.

Her poems and essays frequently center on family members - her parents, grandparents, aunties, grandchildren - and on work - fishing, berry picking, cannery work. Some poems present serious political and social issues, such as “Genocide” and “Chilkoot River/Lukaax.adi Village,” while others explore cultural miscommunication, such as the humorous poem “Cross Talk.”

Some pieces weave in wide-ranging influences. The last part of the her 1988 collection “The Droning Shaman,” for example, includes her Tlingit translations of works by modern American poet e.e. cummings, ninth century Chinese poet Han Shan, and 17th century Japanese poet Basho, known for his mastery of haiku.

Some of her own poetry in that collection, such as “Granddaughters Dancing,” resembles the haiku form in brevity and impressionistic imagery:

“Granddaughters dancing,


swaying in the wind.”

“I read a lot of haikus,” Dauenhauer said. “I kind of liked how tiny they were.”

Gathering from elders

As a bilingual poet and writer, Nora Dauenhauer’s work offers insight into not just her Tlingit culture but also into areas of overlap between Tlingit traditions and modern American culture. This is sometimes approached in humorous ways in her work, as she deliberately emphasizes the clash. For example in one of her Raven plays, “Raven Loses his Nose,” written for Na Kahidi Theater and based on a story told by Susie James, she writes:

“As he walks along the beach / he staggers from side to side from hunger / he thinks about the parking lots of grocery stores / where he can always pick up an Oreo cookie / or a slice of bread, / or maybe a Hostess Twinkie.”

Some of the Raven stories that provided the basis for Dauenhauer’s plays were gathered by her beginning in the early 1970s. Dauenhauer said she began recording elders while teaching Tlingit to high school students in Juneau in an effort to help students learn from fluent speakers.

“The old people would say, when they told stories, ‘If only someone could write the stories,’ and that stuck in my mind,” Dauenhauer said of her decision to begin recording elders.

Many of the stories were familiar to her, as she’d grown up with them.

Dauenhauer, a Raven of the Lukaaxh.ádi clan, was one of 16 children. Her childhood was infused with the rhythms and imagery of a traditional Tlingit lifestyle - fishing, hunting, basket weaving, carving, food preservation. Her mother, Emma Marks, was originally from Yakutat, and her father, Willie, came from a long line of carvers and fisherman from the Hoonah area. In her autobiographical essay “Life woven with Song,” Dauenhauer describes a childhood surrounded by artists; her father and brothers were carvers, her aunts and grandmother weavers, her mother - and later her sister Florence - are renowned for their bead work. The essay describes the squeak of spruce roots as they were woven into baskets by her Auntie Anny and Grandma Eliza, the smell of yellow cedar as it was carved by her father, and of the tar and bluestone (copper sulfate) he used to preserve his seine nets, and the image of “shade filtered light” in the forest near Elfin Cove during root harvesting. And, always, the comforting presence of family. Dauenhauer writes:

“During the day, focus was on the work to keep alive and warm. After the evening meal, all of the men who were along on hunting or trapping participated in storytelling. This is when I would be pulled in and woven along into the stories. I imagined every incident or tragic ending as real. If we listened carefully, we kids could practice telling the stories to each other later. I usually fell asleep listening to the storytelling.”

Dauenhauer’s recording project is part of what drew the attention of her future husband, Richard, at Alaska Pacific University. The couple married in 1973.

After receiving her degree in anthropology with a concentration in Tlingit literature in 1976, Dauenhauer was hired by Michael Krauss of the University of Alaska Fairbanks to work with the Alaska Native Language Center to continue recording elders, a project she carried out in conjunction with her husband. In 1983, the couple moved to Juneau to be near family and to continue their work. The Dauenhauers bought back property on Douglas that had once belonged to Nora’s grandfather - land that has been in her family for at least six generations - and built their house, where she still lives.

Soon after moving back to Juneau, Nora Dauenhauer took a position with Sealaska Heritage Institute, as principal researcher in language and cultural studies, a job she held through 1997.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Dauenhauers worked on Tlingit language resources such as a widely used Tlingit language textbook. They also continued the long process of translating and transcribing Tlingit stories and oratory into written form, some of which has been published as part of a four-book series, “Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives” (1987), “Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory” (1990), “Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories” (1994) and “Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká, Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804” (2008). Currently, a team of researchers and writers including Dauenhauer, James Crippen, Keri Eggleston, Kathy Ruddy, Lance Twitchell and Ishmael Hope are working on another volume in the series. That book, a collection of Raven stories, is expected to be published next year by SHI and the University of Washington Press.

Still writing

Dauenhauer’s appointment to the position of Writer Laureate is the latest in a long series of honors she has garnered for her work (see below). Along the way she’s had an opportunity to meet and work with other indigenous poets including Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz, as well as well-known American poet Gary Snyder, whom she thanks for his encouragement in the acknowledgement section of “The Droning Shaman.”

Though she’s not writing much poetry these days, Dauenhauer is still writing, most recently an account of her father and uncle’s adventurous escape from the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. She also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of writing a song. (Interestingly, the suggested translation for poetry in Tlingit is “song language” — in Tlingit “at shí yoo xh’atángi” — according to UAS language professor Twitchell.)

In the meantime, she said she enjoys giving readings and is looking forward to welcoming the next Writer Laureate in January. One of the most enjoyable parts of her literary career thus far, Dauenhauer said, has been discovering how much she was capable of.

“What I enjoyed, I think, was finding out I could do something like poetry,” she said.


Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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