Dauenhauer: 'Songs of vision and experience'

Community members reflect on his life and work

“We mature with poetry
with songs of vision
and experience;
we raise these questions
so that myth
will mean for us:
questions of the body
and the blood...”


— from “A Reading of ‘Persephones’” by Richard Dauenhauer in “Glacier Bay Concerto,” reprinted with permission from Alaska Pacific University Press


Richard Dauenhauer has been described by many titles: poet, translator, scholar, linguist, anthropologist historian, editor, educator, anthologist. And in Juneau, his home since 1983, also: mentor, colleague, neighbor, friend.

Community members who shared their thoughts about Dauenhauer’s life and work following his Aug. 19 death went beyond those titles to describe a man who was both erudite and playful, a highly productive yet humble scholar whose work bears the imprint of two great gifts: the love of his wife, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, a Tlingit poet and his longtime collaborator; and a poetic sensibility, a keen awareness of how thought and language, language and culture, intertwine.

Through their meticulous scholarship, and more than 40 years of sustained effort, the Dauenhauers constructed a lasting bridge between Tlingit oral tradition and written documentation of the language, the stories, and the underlying modes of thought on which that tradition is built, paving the way for untold numbers of future readers and speakers, students and scholars.

Their achievements include the four-part (soon to be five-part) series, Classics of Tlingit Literature, based on transcriptions and translations of Tlingit history and oratory; language resources that include the main Tlingit textbooks used in university classrooms; a central role in helping to establish an Alaska Native languages program at Sealaska Heritage Institute and the University of Alaska Southeast; and the publication of several volumes of individual works of poetry. They are also the only couple in the country’s history to have both been named State Writers Laureate: Dauenhauer from 1981-1988 and Marks Dauenhauer from 2012-2014.

Tlingit storyteller, poet and researcher Ishmael Hope said if you consider the breadth of Dauenhauer’s work — the essays and poems, the translation and transcription of Tlingit literature and oratory, and the huge strides he and his wife made in bringing the study of the language to a wider audience — you begin to get a sense of his position as a world-class scholar, one Hope puts on par with famous French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

“If you put all that together you’ll start to see that he wasn’t just a person who sort of collated and edited Tlingit material, it was some of the best scholarly work we’ve ever seen with anyone who has worked with indigenous communities,” Hope said.


A holistic approach

Dauenhauer came to his study of Tlingit language and culture from a background in comparative literature, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1974. He had a wide-ranging, in-depth knowledge of literary genres that included ancient Slavic epics, classical Chinese poetry, Russian novels and Shakespearian sonnets. Rather than approaching Tlingit stories from a scientific or folkloric perspective, Hope said, he came toward them with a literary mind that recognized their value.

“He frequently talked about how we can’t meet Homer, or the great ancient Greek playwrights, or the singer of Beowulf, but we had Willie Marks and Austin Hammond and Robert Zuboff and George Davis and Susie James,” Hope said. “Seeing a marginalized community produce oral literature that rivals anything in the world, he helped create the body of evidence for it. ... And he found the absolute perfect person to collaborate with.”

Dauenhauer’s wife helped give him the background to present Tlingit oral literature in its cultural context, rather than giving the stories a framework that was more accessible to Western academic schools of thought, Hope said. Along with this deep level of cultural understanding came a self-effacing focus on the elders and storytellers with whom the couple worked, and a commitment to honoring them as individuals.

“It was extremely important that Richard feature and document the Tlingit elders in their own words, in their own language, well translated and well edited, and then step aside, and leave the words of the elders front and center,” Hope said. “Not to adapt, not to change, not to put his own name in front of it, not to rewrite it, not to Westernize it or romanticize it.”

Xh’unei Lance Twitchell, Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS, said that through their recordings of Tlingit oral literature and oratory, the Dauenhauers were not only capturing fluent speakers and their stories, they were also documenting how the language functions at its highest level, providing an essential foundation for teaching and learning the language. They sought out the best storytellers, whose oratory was rich in metaphor.

“They knew who the great ones were — not to say they got them all, but their collections are just amazing, it’s amazing that we have that,” Twitchell said. “A lot of them are just ancient, ancient stories.”

Through their attention to the rhythm and feeling of the way the sentences were put together in translation, and through their carefully written introductions to their books, the Dauenhauers helped to explain complex ideas about how language, cultural identity and world view are bound together.

“They really helped people understand how to try to think in Tlingit,” Twitchell said.

Building on the scholarship of linguists including Jeff Leer, Constance Naish and Gillian Story, and working closely with younger scholars and linguists including Twitchell and Keri Edwards Eggleston, the Dauenhauers have had an immeasurable impact on the way Tlingit is taught and learned, Twitchell said.

“Without the two of them, I don’t know where it would be right now,” he said.

There are about 200 Tlingit speakers left, he said, but at any given time about 150 students, nearly all of whom are using the Dauenhauers’ materials — such as their “Beginning Tlingit” textbook, published in 1976 — and the methods they developed.

“Tlingit is very hard, but they did a really good job of breaking down how it works,” he said.

Dauenhauer served as the President’s Professor of Alaska Native Languages and Culture at UAS from 2005 to 2011 and was awarded the University of Alaska Foundation’s Edith R. Bullock Prize for Excellence for his work there in 2012.

Twitchell took over for Dauenhauer in heading the Alaska Native Languages department at the university in 2011. His personal experience with the couple’s language work began while he was attending college in Minnesota in the late 1990s — he began listening to their tape-recordings in Tlingit as a way to combat homesickness.

“For me (listening to the Dauenhauers’ tapes) was a way to connect myself to my grandfather, who was the only speaker in our family,” he said. “I really knew their voices by the time I first met them.”

Both Dauenhauers became mentors to him on his return to Alaska.

The Dauenhauers were also the first language specialists at Sealaska Heritage Institute, a nonprofit founded as the Sealaska Heritage Foundation in 1981. Dauenhauer served as Director of Language and Cultural Studies at SHI (then SHF) from 1983 to 1997. Chuck Smythe, cultural anthropologist and director of the Culture and History Department at SHI, said their approach to learning through transcription and translation paved the way for the institute’s current language programs.

“That has been the foundation of our ongoing work at SHI, working with Tlingit texts, where we work with Tlingit language learners, linguists and original speakers,” he said.

Dauenhauer had an unusually deep understanding of the Tlingit language, Smythe said, which fed his ability to translate in a way that communicated multiple layers of meaning.

“It will take a number of people to really be able to continue all the dimensions of his work, that’s for sure,” he said.

Local linguist Eggleston has also worked closely with the Dauenhauers in documenting the Tlingit language, particularly in building up a database of Tlingit verbs and their conjugations. She has spent the past 10 years working with elders and learning the Tlingit language herself, and recently received her Ph.D. after publishing her dissertation, “575+ Tlingit Verbs: A study of Tlingit verb paradigms.” She also published a “Dictionary of Tlingit” through Sealaska Heritage Institute in 2010.

Eggleston said in addition to Dauenhauer’s scholarship, she appreciated his sense of humor and love of poetry, both of which were evident in the way he approached his study of the language.

“Dick was an artist when it came to language,” Eggleston said. “He was good at making the grammatical side of Tlingit lighthearted and fun, but his heart was in the oral narrative. He recognized the natural poetry in Tlingit and got a huge kick out of unexpected word usage in an elder’s speech or story. This is why he passed the verb documentation project on to me, he wanted to get back to the oral narrative. That’s what seemed to excite him the most.”

Eggleston said she believes Dauenhauer’s scholarship and language work was so well documented it will continue to benefit people indefinitely, despite his absence. Still, she said, that absence is one that will take a long time to get used to, on both a professional and a personal level.

“When I found out a month ago that he had terminal cancer, it felt like the foundation was being pulled out from under me. He was that big of a figure in my life, and I think for many others as well.”


A collaboration based on a shared vision

Dick Dauenhauer was 27 when he arrived in Alaska to teach at Alaska Pacific University (then Alaska Methodist University) in 1969. He had already received his bachelor’s in Russian and Slavic languages and his master’s in German, and had spent a year in Finland on a Fulbright scholarship. While completing his Ph.D. in comparative literature in 1974, he published his dissertation, “Text and Context of Tlingit Oral Tradition.”

At Alaska Pacific, he met an anthropology student named Nora Marks, who was 15 years his senior. By the time she arrived at the university, Marks Dauenhauer had been laying the groundwork for the projects she and her husband would eventually take on as a team. In a lecture the Dauenhauers presented at the 2014 Celebration event in Juneau, Marks Dauenhauer said she began what would become her life’s work while working at Juneau-Douglas High School. She began visiting the villages, sometimes taking teenagers with her to reconnect them with the sound of spoken Tlingit, a language she spoke exclusively until she was 8. While in Angoon, she met Tlingit storyteller Robert Zuboff and asked him if she could record him. He agreed, and she started what would be a lifetime project.

According to a previous Empire interview published in 2004, the Dauenhauers’ first interaction came in the form of a letter, in which Dauenhauer expressed his interest in Marks Dauenhauer’s recording project.

“My husband wrote me a fan letter. I didn’t know who he was,” Marks Dauenhauer said in the 2004 interview, conducted by Eric Fry.

“Then I started writing love letters,” Dauenhauer said.

The couple married in 1973 and worked together for the next four decades, working in parallel and overlapping tracks, drawing on their respective strengths to feed their cross-cultural partnership.

Dauenhauer was an adopted member of the Chookaneidí Clan, Brown Bear House, Hoonah, which is Marks Dauenhauer’s father’s clan.

Tlingit author, poet and UAS English professor Ernestine Hayes said in addition to Dauenhauer’s tremendous contributions in advancing an awareness of the complexity of Native thought, she believes one of his greatest gifts was encouraging Marks Dauenhauer’s work as a Tlingit scholar and poet.

“She was a scholar in her own right (when they met) but he became the Poet Laureate of Alaska and probably encouraged her in her writing, her scholarship and her studies,” Hayes said. “And I know that he took such tender care of the woman he loved, and appreciated her so much and valued her knowledge and scholarship. I’m sure he was there to encourage her in her work — and her work is just as momentous and significant as his. I feel that could be certainly one of the greatest gifts he gave us.”

Among the couple’s best known collaborative works are the four books in the award-winning Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature Series, co-published by Sealaska Heritage Institute and the University of Washington Press. At the time of Dauenhauer’s death, they were preparing their fifth volume in their series, a collection of Tlingit Raven stories based, like the other volumes, on recordings with elders.

The first four volumes in the series are: “Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives” (1987); “Haa Tuwunaagu Yis, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory” (1990); “Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories” (1994); and “Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka / Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804” (2008), also edited by Lydia Black. (Find out more about the series here: http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/)

The second and fourth books in the series won American Book Awards from the Before Columbus Foundation and the fourth also won an Alaska Library Association’s Alaskana of the Year Award in 2009. Local writer Dave Hunsaker adapted it into a play that debuted at Perseverance Theatre.

Hunsaker said he was immediately captivated by “Russians in Tlingit America,” which presents accounts of the Battles of Sitka in 1802 and 1804 from the perspective of both sides, drawing on Russian historical accounts and Tlingit oral tradition.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “I remember my jaw just dropping upon reading it.”

Hunsaker, who has known the Dauenhauers since the early 1970s, said in terms of literary beauty, their oratory book is even better, in his opinion.

“The book of oratory is probably the most magnificent thing ever put on the page, I think, as far as being a cross-cultural book of poetry. It is poetry, and I think only poets like Dick and Nora could have translated it in the form that they did.”


‘His whole person on the page’

Dauenhauer’s poetry collections include “Phenologies: poems” (1986), “Frames of reference: poems” (1987), “Glacier Bay Concerto” (1980) and “Benchmarks: New and Selected Poems 1963-2013” (2013). His work also appeared annually in Tidal Echoes, the UAS literary journal edited by poet and UAS professor of English Emily Wall.

Wall said for her, part of the strength of Dauenhauer’s poetry comes from his incredible attention to image and his ability to put “his whole person on the page.”

“I spent a lot of time studying his poems and talking to him, trying to learn,” she said. “He has this ability to get it exactly right — that’s something I think we all strive for. He’ll describe digging in the garden and it becomes this transformative poem about digging potatoes. That’s where I think I’ve tried to study his work and think about how he uses language and image and metaphor — how he gets that moment to take flight in his work.”

Dauenhauer’s spirituality is evident in much of his work — he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 and attended St. Nicholas Church downtown — as is his deep appreciation for nature and his love for his wife (“My Raven / sings in many voices; / her words tumble / through paper skies ...” he writes in “Fieldwork.”)

For Hope, whose poem dedicated to Dauenhauer appears at in this issue of Arts, Dauenhauer’s poetry ranks among the greats, and is an aspect of his talent that is underappreciated.

“I see his poetry as a Gary Snyder or Robert Bly of Alaska,” he said. “Equal to those achievements, just as heart-rending and at times risk-taking and touching as any poetry you’ll find.”

Several community members said they were turning to the poetry this week to comfort themselves in the days following Dauenhauer’s death. Like his scholarship, his poetry will carry his name into the future.

Hayes said in terms of the number of lives he touched through his work during his lifetime, there is simply no way to gauge his influence, and thus his legacy, at this point in time.

“He influenced a lot of people directly but he also influences the people that they are now influencing, it’s just going on through the generations, what he did,” Hayes said. “And the people whose lives he impacted and who he inspired to become inspirations themselves for others, there is just no way to even appreciate what that’s going to mean.”

To read quotes from community members about Dauenhauer, visit http://juneauempire.com/art/2014-08-28/thoughts-richard-dauenhauer.



A Russian Orthodox service will be held for Dauenhauer at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 28, at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox blessing of the plot and burial will follow the service at Alaska Memorial Park.

The celebration of his life and contributions to Alaska will be held on Saturday, Aug. 30, at 1 p.m., at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Willoughy Avenue.

Thoughts on Richard Dauenhauer
Poet, translator Richard Dauenhauer dies at 72
Dauenhauer named State Writer Laureate
Richard Dauenhauer wins Bullock prize for excellence
Two poems by Richard Dauenhauer, 1942-2014


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