Juneau linguist publishes collection of new writing

Posted: Thursday, March 16, 2000

The poetry of e.e. cummings and Gary Snyder and the songs of Lxook and Shkik were woven together in the education of Nora Marks Dauenhauer.

The Tlingit song composers were part of her early childhood. The daughter of a fisherman, Dauenhauer grew up in the 1930s and '40s in Juneau and Hoonah, and on the waters of Icy Strait and Glacier Bay. She spoke only Tlingit until she was 8 years old.

Later, when she attended college in Anchorage, she read the works of poets and renowned authors. All the influences found their way into her poetry and writing.

Dauenhauer has published a new book called ``Life Woven With Song,'' a collection of autobiographical essays, poetry and plays.

The award-winning Juneau linguist, editor and author will be at a book-signing from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Hearthside Books in the Nugget Mall. Also at the signing will be photographer Mark Kelley with his new book on Glacier Bay National Park; Nick Jans, who wrote the text for a book of Alaska landscape photography by Art Wolfe; and Jim Fowler, who has illustrated a new book called ``Dolphin Freedom'' by Florida author Wayne Grover.

Dauenhauer said being bilingual is a tremendous advantage for a writer.

``It's really a sad thing that people want one language. You have the opportunity to think in two languages,'' she said. ``I think I'm able to draw on Tlingit to write my poems. In Tlingit we have a lot of poetic style, especially in Tlingit oratory.''

When she attended Alaska Methodist University in the early 1970s, Dauenhauer was fascinated to discover striking similarities between Tlingit oratory and the eighth-century English epic poem, ``Beowulf.''

``I saw the concern about death and genealogy - that was a lot like us. I thought that was pretty cool. I never read about it before,'' she said.

Homer's epic poem about the siege of Troy also resonated as another classic of oral tradition put to the page.

``Life Woven With Song'' includes three Raven plays Dauenhauer wrote for Na Kahidi Theater, detailing the adventures of the Tlingit trickster. She based the plays on stories she translated from elders, and she combined the traditional themes and characters with contemporary elements. The Juneau-based Native theater group performed the plays nationally and internationally from the late 1980s until 1997, when it disbanded.

Dauenhauer served as the principle researcher in language and cultural studies for the Sealaska Heritage Foundation from 1983 until 1997. She received the Governor's Award for the Arts in 1989, and in 1991 she was the winner of the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award.

Her creative writing, poetry and essays have been published in literary magazines and anthologies. Many of the pieces in ``Life Woven With Song'' previously appeared in magazines. Her essay on Tlingit art was previously run in a publication put out by Cooper Union, a university in New York City. Another autobiographical story from her childhood ran in the Navajo Community College literary publication.

Dauenhauer and her husband, Richard Dauenhauer, researched and edited a 900-page tome titled ``Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories,'' part of a series on Tlingit oral literature. She also published a book of poetry titled ``The Droning Shaman.''

An editor with The University Of Arizona Press heard Dauenhauer read a few years ago at a conference for Native American writers in the Southwest. She asked her to consider writing a book, and that set the wheels in motion for a ``Life Woven With Song.''

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