Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Last month the Rasmuson Foundation honored former Alaska Writer Laureate Ernestine Hayes, Tlingit, with its 2021 Distinguished Artist Award. Hayes is the author of two Alaska Native memoirs, “Blonde Indian,” and “The Tao of Raven.”

Telling the story of her life, she intermingles pride, love, poverty, shame, beautiful vistas, the perspectives of wildlife and the Earth, and Tlingit tales.

She writes about growing up with her Tlingit grandparents in a Native enclave in Juneau called the Indian Village, a remnant of Tlingit homelands, while her mother spent years recovering from Tuberculosis in a sanitarium.

In a film shown during an award celebration held on May 21, Hayes said growing up with blonde hair as a child, “I have recently faced that my journey of marginalization began in my earliest years.”

“The little girl I write about was excluded from both cultures (Native and non-Native) in Territorial Alaska … this life pattern continued throughout my childhood, throughout my years in California, and throughout my life,” Hayes said.

The Rasmuson family philanthropic foundation awards $20-to-30 million annually to Alaskan individuals and entities. More than half of the foundation's 17 recipients of distinguished artist awards have been Alaska Native.

At age 15, Hayes had moved with her mother to California. She lived there for 25 years, always dreaming of returning home. Some of that time was spent in homeless shelters and dingy apartments in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

“Finally, when I turned 40, my life in shambles, homeless, not for the first time, broke, not for the last time, I said to myself, ‘let me go home or let me be gone with my thoughts facing north’,” Hayes said.

Back in Juneau, she performed in Native theater, then worked on cruise ships, telling visitors about Tlingit traditions and culture, and about humpback whales, killer whales, glaciers, bears, ravens and eagles.

Hayes had always read avidly but dropped out of high school before she finished the 10th grade. At age 50 she decided to go to college. “I took my GED and signed up. I took a class on Native American literature. And I realized that's what I was writing. The open-ended structure, the reader-listener participation, different perspectives and points of view, and the call of nature and place is so important. I was writing all that. And it turned out that that is Native literature,” Hayes said.

“I was thinking about the forest one day and it came to me, our stories, our songs, our names, our history, our memories are not lost. All these riches are being kept for us by our aunties, our uncles, our grandparents, relatives, those namesakes who walk and dance wearing robes that make them seem like bears and wolves, our loved ones, those beings who lived in the spoken forest, they’re holding everything for us,” Hayes said.

Hayes interweaves a sense of place with Tlingit stories, as well as the perspectives of bear, raven, the forest, and others. Grief, anger, and fear are also mixed in — knowing tales of alcoholism, poverty, and homelessness.

Hayes became a published author and poet, and an English professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Praise for Hayes flowed during the online awards celebration.

Rasmuson Foundation President and CEO Diane Kaplan said the award goes to artists who “are masters in their craft, generous with their time and knowledge, and share a deep love for our state of Alaska.” She said Hayes’ writing “explores the complexities of Indigenous identity. Her work spans genres, poetry, fiction, children's literature and creative non-fiction.”

University of Alaska Southeast professor Lance X̱'unei Twitchell, PhD, Tlingit, teaches courses on Alaska Native language, arts and sciences. He told Hayes she’s a constant source of inspiration, “a writer of incredible power and importance. There's no one who's more deserving of recognition for being one of the state's finest artists,” Twitchell said.

Ernestine Hayes, Tlingit, former Alaska Writer Laureate and award-winning author of two Alaska Native memoirs: "Blond Indian," and "The Tao of Raven." (Photo courtesy of Rasmuson Foundation).

Joy Harjo, Muskogee Creek Nation, is the first Native American United States poet laureate and the author of multiple books of poetry and memoirs and of recorded albums.

Speaking from Oklahoma, Harjo said, “I am here with all of you to celebrate Ernestine Hayes and her amazing career. I wouldn't even call it a career — her calling, her place, her accomplishments as a Tlingit writer, thinker, being, a person carrying so much from the ancestors. She’s helped bring it into a place that this kind of wisdom can be shared.”

Harjo said Hayes spoke of her struggles and her life, “but embodied in that I could hear and almost see them (the ancestors) standing around, hear those voices that say ‘we were here before colonization.’ The teachings have everything to do with the health and the wellbeing of the people. And the people are all of us, including the animals and the mountains and the waters. And it's all there in Ernestine Hayes’ work. She so deserves this award,” Harjo said.

A descendant of the foundation’s founder and Board Member Adam Gibbons, told Hayes, “you are a living, breathing, storytelling treasure, an author, a poet, a professor, a little blonde granddaughter, and a grandmother. Your storytelling talent is a treasure,” Gibbon said.

Ibn Bailey, of Juneau, said, “You have talked about having those feelings of being marginalized and being in between two worlds. I'd like to think that you were just ahead of everyone. Everyone is following behind you. And you're just so far ahead. And sometimes that journey that you've taken seems lonely because we're just catching up.”

A few years ago, Hayes’ 1906-era home was destroyed by fire. The Rasmuson award, which came with a $40,000 check, is a godsend, Hayes said.

“After 37 months of my growing desperation, I've now gone all in with all my savings, all my retirement, all my energy and all the hope I could still muster. As you can imagine, I can't describe the relief that your generosity has brought to my worries as we prepare for the next stage with moving and replacing and restoring still to come. Gunalchéesh (thank you in Tlingit). This gift is much needed, so very much appreciated; it means more than you can know.”

“...this generosity, this recognition, this acceptance, this honor overwhelms me and has taught me that I am part of the community. You have given me a gift that fulfills the deep need I've lived with since I was a little girl,” Hayes said. “I feel your acceptance. I feel accepted. Gunalchéesh.”

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