Southeast Alaska lost a poet, a translator, a scholar, a former poet laureate and a historian on Tuesday. Richard “Dick” Dauenhauer was all of these things and more in his lifetime, which ended after a battle with cancer.
Dauenhauer was born in 1942 in Syracuse, N.Y., though he called Alaska home after moving to the state in the late 1960s. He married into and became an expert on the Tlingit nation of Southeast Alaska. He met his wife, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, at Alaska Methodist University in the mid-1970s. She is celebrated for many of the same contributions — the two often worked together.
He earned a bachelor of arts degree in Russian and Slavic languages from Syracuse University, a master’s degree in German from the University of Texas and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His Ph.D. dissertation was “Text and Context of Tlingit Oral Tradition,” printed in 1974. He also studied for a year in Finland as a Fulbright Fellow before joining the faculty of Alaska Methodist University in the late 1960s.
He worked for Sealaska Heritage Institute in the 1980s and 1990s before becoming the University of Alaska Southeast President’s Professor of Alaska Native Languages. Dauenhauer also served as the state’s poet laureate from 1981 to 1985, an honor Nora holds through 2014.
To list the couple’s works would be arduous, but their benefits to the language, culture and the communities of Southeast Alaska are more telling.
“Dauenhauer’s contributions to Tlingit culture are immeasurable,” wrote Rosita Worl, Sealaska Heritage Institute executive director, in an email to the Empire. “We are deeply saddened despite knowing that we and future generations benefit from his decades of dedicated scholarly work that he pursued with his beloved wife, Nora or Keixnei. He brought to life the words and wisdom of our ancestors that otherwise might have passed into oblivion but for his persistence in collecting the stories and his ability to transcribe, translate and publish the oral traditions of our ancestors.”
His publications, individually and with Nora, helped ensure the survival of the Tlingit language.
UAS Chancellor John Pugh worked closely with Dauenhauer and, with the university’s administration, invited him to serve as a distinguished professor to design and implement the school’s Alaska Native Languages and Culture program.
Lance Twitchell, who heads the program, said “Everything we’re doing there is really made possible by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer.”
Twitchell said educators in the program teach from the Dauenhauers’ materials, from the archives they collected and with the reverence exemplified by their treatment of Native languages and culture in academia.
A month ago, Twitchell had the opportunity to do what many wish they could in the wake of the death of someone important.
Twitchell said he was able to tell Dauenhauer, “the work that you did changed my entire life. It made me really aware of what I wanted to do.”
Even after his time at the university, Pugh said Dauenhauer and his wife remained active. With Dauenhauer gone, and many Tlingit language and culture-bearers in their twilight years, those who worked with him and Nora note a large void that will need to be filled.
“A bunch of us are trying to pick up these pieces and stand in these monumental footprints, to figure out how we can also be these movers and shakers,” Twitchell said.
Some of those pieces take the form of a collection of Raven stories to be published by SHI once scholars like Twitchell are able to complete the work the Dauenhauers have been doing over the last year.
Other pieces include simply continuing to teach, share and speak Native languages.
Dauenhauer’s memory will live on not only in the hearts of people whose lives he touched, but in the continued life of Native languages and culture.
“We mourn the loss of a great person,” Worl said. “But we are thankful that he came into our lives and culture.”