In her American Book Award-winning memoir “Blond Indian,” Ernestine Hayes shared with readers a sense of what life was like for her in Juneau when she was growing up. Born in 1945 and raised in the Indian Village off Willoughby Avenue, Hayes’ first-person descriptions of our community, and of the land that eventually drew her back here after many years away, make the book an important read for those that call this place home.
Now she’s penned another kind of book on local history, one that required a less personal and more academic approach to Juneau’s past. The book, called “Juneau” and released Monday, is a pictorial history of how the city was formed and of important events and individuals that shaped its early development. Publisher Arcadia Press asked Hayes to write it as part of their “Images of America” series that covers a broad range of American cities and towns. In keeping with the series’ focus, Hayes concentrated on the city’s early history, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“I limited it more or less to the founding or beginning, or how Juneau originated in the place where it is today,” said Hayes, who will be signing copes of the book during Gallery Walk at Hearthside Books.
Hayes, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast, said even though she knows a fair amount about her hometown, the book required a lot of research and many hours of sifting through images to find the ones she thought would best illustrate historical events.
“There were some things I remembered, for instance I recognized some old buildings and so on, but most of it was compiled through a lot of research,” she said. “Of course, I didn’t know that much about some of the earlier mining history and things like that, so I learned a lot along the way.”
The first chapter begins with the city’s raison d’ être, gold (“A Town Founded on a Gold Strike”), and from there goes into fishing (“Riches in the Waters”), an industry that developed right afterward. In the third chapter, Hayes reminds readers that just because the town began in 1880, it doesn’t mean the land was silent prior to that time; the local Tlingit community used this area as a summer camp “since time immemorial,” said Hayes, who is Tlingit and a member of the Kaagwaantaan clan.
“The reason I wanted to do this (project) at the beginning was because I’ve seen so many history books about Alaska and other places where the history simply begins with colonization and there might be one chapter that says ‘Our Natives,’ and in the rest of it there is no native presence,” she said. “I wanted to avoid yet another book like that. So for instance in the chapter that includes social organizations, the ANB is in there. It’s not set apart like, ‘Here’s what our natives do.’ It’s part of the fabric of the history of Juneau.”
Other chapters cover government, schools, residents and visitors.
Overall, Hayes says she tried to tell the city’s story in a straightforward way.
“I did try to remain — I don’t know if you would say neutral or objective — but I tried to remain factual about 'here’s what happened, here’s the interesting stories.'”
One of the most surprising things, to her, was the extent of the town of Treadwell.
“I knew it had happened, that it was a fact, but to get a larger picture of what it involved, how large the town was ... what a lively place it was, I’d never thought of it in that way. So that was quite an experience for me,” she said. “And the individual people in the early days of mining around Juneau — there were some real characters, and it was a lot of fun to learn about them.”
In working on the book, Hayes spent a lot of time at the Alaska State Library, and she also accessed photos and documents through the Library of Congress, among other sources. The book required the selection of 200 high resolution historical photographs, a number she quickly realized was much higher than it seemed. The photos she chose also came with an unexpected price tag — users must pay for high resolution versions of historical photos in the state’s collections — but she was able to make it work with outside help.
“The Juneau Community Foundation helped and so did UAS, and with help from both those entities I was able to choose pictures that I thought were evocative and spoke of the period,” Hayes said.
After selecting the pictures and researching the facts around Juneau’s beginnings, Hayes had to form it all into a “coherent thread,” one that fit within the relatively narrow confines of the slim book.
“There were very strict word count requirements for the captions, for the introductions and for the whole book,” she said. “So I had really to watch every word and select pictures that represented a lot of ideas and the time period.”
Hayes said in addition to being a factual learning experience, the research gave her insight into her own background, specifically her mother’s experience of living in Juneau in the early decades of the 1900s.
“Normally I like to write lyrical prose and some poetry, and there was not a lot of opportunity for that in this book, but perusing those old photos I collected more than it turned out I used in this book. And some of them, especially the ones I looked at from the ‘30 and ‘40s, made me come to a deeper understanding about my mother and the things she saw in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and the activities that were going on. It really made me contemplative about the Native experience during those years. I didn’t write about it or really touch on it to that degree in this book, but I believe that there’s some writing, hopefully some lyrical essays, that I can put on the page to express the effect it had on me to see those pictures.”
Hayes’ books, in addition to “Blond Indian” include the first-ever children’s book written entirely in Tlingit, “The Story of the Town Bear and Forest Bear,” published by Hazy Island Books. This summer, she was one of two poets honored through the Poetry in Place project, which placed poems by Hayes and Emily Wall on permanent signage in Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan. She is currently working on a fiction book that picks up the story of one of the characters in “Blonde Indian,” named Old Tom. At 50,000 words in, she’s feeling positive about getting it done fairly soon — and will be turning her attention back to that project now that “Juneau” is complete.
Hayes will sign copies of “Juneau” during Gallery walk at Hearthside Books downtown from 5-7 p.m.
From the introduction to Chapter Six, “Juneau residents”
“By the first US census in Alaska, the population of miners, fishers, and entrepreneurs in the Juneau vicinity had multiplied to such an extent that Juneau was counted as the largest city in Alaska with a population of some 1,200, about half of whom were indigenous. At the same time, approximately 400 people were living across the Gastineau Channel on Douglas Island. Reflecting the colonial attitude of the times, the 1890 report observed, “Juneau and Douglas supply the only examples in Alaska of American frontier settlements affording the ordinary necessities and conveniences of civilized life.”
Two decades later, the 1910 population of Douglas was greater than the population of Juneau, and when added to the number of people then living in Treadwell, the recorded total of residents of Douglas Island was almost double that of Juneau City, which had grown to just over 1,600 by that year. However, by 1920, Juneau had regained its position as Alaska’s most populous city and would remain so until the 1940s, when US military activity and the associated construction of the Alaska Highway would transfer that distinction to Anchorage.
Even before the 1880 gold strike that led to the beginning of Juneau City, people treasured the generous natural surroundings of the area, and summer residents of Dzantik’i Heeni began the long-standing tradition of love of the place now called Juneau. Although the photographic record emphasizes the mining, commercial, and governmental activities of newly arrived settlers, the importance of indigenous populations and the significant contributions made by Juneau’s nonwhite citizens cannot be overlooked. On streets named after Harris, Willoughby, and Kennedy also walk the memory of Willard, Mercado, Tolliver, Hope, Soboleff, Peratrovich, Lee, and the many others who, counted and uncounted, are also the residents who continue to give Juneau its rich and lively history."
Reprinted with permission from “Juneau”, by Ernestine Hayes. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665.