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UAS prof asks tough questions in Tlingit history talk

Event was part of 'Evenings at Egan' lecture series

Posted: November 4, 2012 - 1:08am

American Book Award recipient Ernestine Hayes challenged her audience at the University of Alaska Southeast’s “Evenings at Egan” lecture Friday night to think critically about Tlingit history and its relationship with contemporary Southeast Alaska in her lecture, “What shall we do with our histories?”

Hayes, an assistant professor of English at UAS, received the American Book Award in 2007 for her semifictional memoir, “Blonde Indian.” She has given this particular lecture for the Association for Literature and the Environment Conference and the International Polar Year conference.

At the beginning of her lecture, Hayes detailed the extent to which Tlingit culture has been supplanted by Western civilization, as well as the way that Lingit Aani, or “Tlingit Country,” sustained the Native people of what is now Southeast Alaska for millennia prior to European contact.

“We do well to remind ourselves that had the colonial invasion not taken place, Alaska Native people would still be living in the 21st century,” Hayes contended. “Our lives would still be modern. Paved roads, airports and electricity would still occur here in Lingit Aani. Some things would be different, of course. We would be speaking our own language. We would be living in houses of our own design. We would not be devastated by incarceration, alcoholism, violence, poverty. Our children would be healthy.”

Although, as Hayes noted, many historians describe the era before Europeans made contact with Native Americans as “prehistory,” she said much is known about the history of Lingit Aani via oral tradition.

“It is wise to learn about the original people of what is now this part of Alaska from a less Eurocentric perspective,” Hayes said.

At one point, Hayes asked her audience to “suspend your disbelief” and imagine a future in which the United States itself was taken over by an unfamiliar civilization.

“We are speaking of generations,” said Hayes. “What shall we do with this history? What would we do if, in the year of 2015, three years from now, this American culture was suddenly subdued by one that believed theirs was the superior way of living, their god was the one true god, their language the only worthwhile speech, their history the only history that mattered?”

Hayes went through each aspect of the “cultural trauma” Americans would suffer and all of the things that would be “swept away,” drawing parallels between that imagined future and the reality of what happened to the Tlingit.

And then Hayes referred back to the “creation myths” she said are common to every culture. The United States’ creation myths, she argued, include the notions of “freedom of religion” and “justice for all.”

“How are we to understand the contradictions between this country’s creation myths and the actual justice that occurred?” Hayes asked.

Hayes ended her lecture by urging people, both Native and non-Native, to reconcile their present and future with their history.

“It is when we remember our past history together as equals, it is when we communicate our present condition together as equals, it is when we face our uncertain future together as equals, that we will heal together as equals,” said Hayes, who received a long standing ovation from her audience.

Hayes’ latest book is a children’s book, “Aanka Xóodzi ka Aasgutu Xóodzi Shkalneegi,” or “The Story of the Town Bear and the Forest Bear.” The book is available in both Tlingit and English.

Events next week at UAS will also focus on the Native peoples of northern North America.

Randall Tetlichi of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, a member of the faculty at Yukon College in Whitehorse, Yukon, will be the Evenings at Egan lecture speaker next Friday. He will be UAS’ “Elder in Residence” all week long.

Tetlichi is prominently featured in “Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd,” the assigned book at UAS this year, by Canadian wildlife biologist Karsten Heuer.

“If you’ve read the book, ‘Being Caribou,’ or you haven’t — it doesn’t matter — come and see what he has to say from his perspective,” Assistant Professor Sarah Jaquette Ray urged the audience before Hayes’ lecture in Egan Library.

At the lecture hall in Egan Library at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, the documentary “Reel Injun” will be screened. Tetlichi is expected to participate in that event as well.

Heuer will be the Evenings at Egan speaker on Nov. 16, the Friday after next.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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