Author Wallis discusses her life and writing

Writer will talk about the trials and tribulations of assembling a memoir

Posted: Friday, November 29, 2002

Writers visit some frightening places. Sometimes the scariest places are in a writer's own life.

Velma Wallis, author of "Raising Ourselves: A Gwich'in Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River," delved into the darkness in her past to tell the true stories of her family and her community.

"People ask me, 'Why talk about your family, about such personal things?' " she said. "But it's my way to bring it out of the woodwork, for people who have not healed. It helps other people."

Wallis, also the author of "Two Old Women" and "Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun," will be in Juneau next week for several presentations. She will sign copies and talk about her new book from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, at Hearthside Books in the Nugget Mall. She also will give advice for writers, and talk about her life and her writing at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, at the downtown library.

"I'll do a talk about what it took to write 'Raising Ourselves' - all the trial and tribulations of doing a memoir, and do a question and answer," she said.

Growing up on the Yukon River in the 1960s and '70s, Wallis said people in her family and in village suffered because they did not deal with grief in their lives. It crippled them emotionally and contributed to alcoholism and other problems.

Flu and other epidemics swept through Northern Alaska early in the 20th century, decimating members of her parents' and grandparents' generations.

"They lost masses of people. They lost so many people they were numb, they couldn't even cry anymore," she said. "I never knew my father went through all that. I never knew the bigger picture."

People shut down their emotions and became secretive, she said. Growing up was confusing. She knew something was going on, but people didn't talk.

In the mid-1980s, a Yup'ik elder named Harold Napoleon wrote an essay, "Way of the Human Being." It profoundly influenced Wallis. She said Napoleon confronted the demons in his own life, which had led to alcoholism, violence and a prison term, and he struggled his way out. Writing helped Napoleon heal his wounds, and Wallis found writing helped her deal with her childhood experiences and later, her brother's death from AIDS.

"I learned about intergenerational trauma," she said. "I thought, 'Don't let that happen, be honest with yourself, your children, don't perpetuate the cycle.' "

Her previous books tell traditional Native stories, oral history legends of the Gwich'in people. She said the topic of intellectual and cultural property rights comes up frequently in discussions about writing. Native people are sometimes very upset when traditional stories are published, especially when "outsiders" make money from Native stories, she said.

She said historically legends were sacred property, and were learning tools used by the cultures. But when alcoholism and other diseases devastated Native populations, stories were lost forever. Sharing the stories, telling them and publishing them, assures that they will not be lost.

She said there is a legend among Natives of the Cook Inlet region about a local mountain called the Sleeping Lady, so named because it looks a bit like a woman reclining.

She had never heard the traditional story until it was published as a children's book several years ago. She's read the book to her children and said now when they travel to Anchorage, she points out the mountain and they recall the legend.

"Some people were really upset that 'The Sleeping Lady' was published," she said. "I'm glad it was in a book. It's a beautiful book and it's there now forever."

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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