Juneau scholar, poet wins award from First Peoples fund

Nora Marks Dauenhauer is one of five recipients nationwide of 2005 Community Spirit Award

Posted: Sunday, November 14, 2004

One day, subway riders in New York City, looking up from their tabloids and reading the ads that run above the cars' windows, saw this poem: "Granddaughters dancing,/ blossoms / swaying in the wind."

The Streetfare Journal, which places poems in streetcars and subways, wasn't the only anthologizer of Nora Marks Dauenhauer, but it may be the oddest.

Dauenhauer, a scholar and poet in Juneau, has won a 2005 Community Spirit Award from the First Peoples Fund, a Native American organization that supports the arts. She is one of five recipients of the award, which includes a $5,000 stipend.

"One of the main reasons I've always enjoyed Nora's writing is because it speaks to the place she is from and the people who are from there along with her," said Ofelia Zepeda, a University of Arizona professor who edited a series of books by Native Americans, one of which was by Dauenhauer.

"Her writing speaks of the land, in particular the sea, and what she knows of it from growing up there," Zepeda said in an e-mail from Tucson. "... Nora writes lovingly of the people, especially those who have gone before and the memories and stories they left behind - all these things create a wonderful bond that comes across in her writing."

Dauenhauer is the co-author, with her husband, Richard, of Tlingit grammar books, collections of Tlingit oral stories and oratory, biographies of elders, and explanations of Tlingit culture. Many were published by the University of Washington Press and the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Nora Marks Dauenhauer also wrote three Raven plays - two of which were produced in Juneau and around the United States and Europe - and two books of poetry.

"I think the world of Tlingit literature is so great," Dauenhauer said last week at home on Douglas Island. "I love the works of Tlingits. I think that young people ought to see it, ought to read them, and check out what makes a human being.

"Maybe it will help them in one way or the other. There are a lot of kids who are searching for something, their names especially," she said, referring to Tlingit names.

Dauenhauer was born in Juneau and raised here and on fishing boats and in subsistence camps. Her father was Willie Marks, a fisherman and carver. Her mother is Emma Frances Marks, a noted beader. Dauenhauer's first language was Tlingit. She didn't speak English until she was 8.

Dauenhauer began her literary work when she was an anthropology student in the mid-1970s at Alaska Methodist University in Anchorage, where Richard was teaching.

"My husband wrote me a fan letter. I didn't know who he was," she said.

"Then I started writing love letters," he said.

Their compilations and translations of Tlingit stories and oratory preserved the words of elders who have since died and who were of the last generation to be raised in the traditional language and culture, the Dauenhauers said.

"No one will ever live this way again," they wrote in the introduction to "Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories," published in 1994.

Richard Dauenhauer compared the writing down of Tlingit oral culture to that of other ancient oral traditions such as Homeric poems and biblical stories.

"The people we would gather from are now gone," Nora Marks Dauenhauer said. "They were very generous to us and wanted to share and wanted to be in print."

She started to write poems herself in the late 1970s or early 1980s, she said.

"The first were all short, haiku-type," Dauenhauer said. "Later on, I started to get into longer poems. I just kept going."

Dauenhauer said her poetry reflects her Tlingit culture in its use of images and its point of view.

"In oratory, there are images in the way orators speak - they go out in images," she said. "And I thought, well, it looks like I could do something like that. But I didn't come up with the images like the orators do. I just had puny thinking."

Dauenhauer's work is in the Native tradition of recording lineage, said Juneau author Ann Chandonnet, thinking of a poem such as "For My Granddaughters Genny and Lenny."

Chandonnet was the first editor to publish Dauenhauer's poems. Published in an Ontario-based arts quarterly, they were a "concrete" poem, in which the Tlingit words for stem, apple and worm formed a picture of an apple, and the well-known poem "How to Make Good Baked Salmon."

The latter poem includes a list of ingredients, cooking directions, and instructions in how to serve and eat salmon. The playful poem compares the best way to do it, in a fish camp, with baking it in an electric oven in the city and eating with plastic forks and paper plates.

The phrase "In this case" becomes a refrain as she compares the old ways with the new. But it's clear that the new way, with its own style of fellowship, is just fine, too.

"Now settle back to a story telling session / while someone feeds the fire. / In this case, small talk and jokes with friends will do / while you drink beer. / If you shouldn't drink beer, / tea or coffee will do nicely."

Another popular poem is "Salmon Egg Puller - $2.15 an Hour," published by the University of Arizona Press in a Dauenhauer collection of prose, plays and poetry called "Life Woven with Song."

The poem includes an almost journalistic description of the act of stripping fish eggs in a day of labor and family responsibilities. It closes: "Next morning, if your fingers are sore, / start dancing immediately. / The pain will go away / after icy fish with eggs."

Chandonnet said it's one of her favorite Dauenhauer poems "because so many people have lived that kind of life, just endless hours standing and your hands swelling, just to earn a little extra cash."

Simon J. Ortiz, a Native American poet and professor of English at the University of Toronto, called Dauenhauer a teacher.

"I mean 'teacher' in the traditional sense, actually, since one does not only convey knowledge through intellectual faculties of the mind but through actual experience and dynamics," he said in an e-mailed comment. "In this sense teaching is actual showing or performance or demonstration of knowledge. It is real teaching, just like the older way was when Tlingit and other indigenous languages were complimentary and reciprocal to and interdependent with the elements contained the actual indigenous world."

James Ruppert, professor of Alaska Native studies at UAF, says Nora Dauenhauer's poem reflect her dedication to traditional culture as well as her broad education and wide-ranging travels.

She is "informed by the Tlingit worldview; her poems often celebrate the spirit of the land and the people, traditional and contemporary, living and departed," Rupert writes.

Many of Dauenhauer's poems are short juxtapositions, much like Japanese haiku, Ruppert writes. "Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, the poems provoke insight into the common processes of the human and natural world."

Dave Hunsaker, who directed Dauenhauer's plays as part of Sealaska Heritage Institute's Naa Kahidi Theater in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said they were comical and interesting adaptations of familiar stories about Raven, a trickster.

"She just put a delightful spin on them," he said. She "always put some modern vernacular in them and playful stuff."

Representatives of the First Peoples Fund were not available for comment. Its Web site said the award funds art that strengthens the sacred honor system of artists who bring spirit back to their community.

In one of the Dauenhauers' collections of the Tlingit oral literature, they wrote of the tradition's spiritual gifts.

"It comes and it goes," Nora Marks Dauenhauer said of the spirits. "The spirits are wonderful when they're here."

Once, she said, while she was writing in Tlingit "they started to fall in my lap. I don't know what it was. I hope it was the spirits. They seemed to fall in place on my lap. Strange. I guess some people call those the muse."

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