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Alaska woman brings Tlingit culture to Writer Laureate

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Posted: Saturday, December 1, 2012 10:00 am

JUNEAU, Alaska — Nora Marks Dauenhauer was honored with a reception at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center earlier this month in recognition of her recent appointment as Alaska's newest Writer Laureate.

The Nov. 20 event, which included brief speeches in English and in Tlingit, highlighted Dauenhauer's role in shaping not only the literary arts of the state, but also in revitalizing the traditions and language of her culture. This dual role as a writer and as a Tlingit culture bearer makes her unique among our Writer Laureates; she is the first Alaska Native to hold the title.

Shannon E. Daut, Executive Director of Alaska State Council on the Arts, said the council was thrilled to honor Dauenhauer.

"Nora is the first Alaska Native woman to be selected to be an Alaska State Writer Laureate, and her lifelong dedication to literature and writing has made a significant impact on the arts and culture of Alaska," she said in an email. "Combined with her literary accomplishments and dedication to the written form, her sense of humor and easy rapport with youth make her an invaluable Alaskan treasure who we are so honored to celebrate."

Daut referred to Nora Dauenhauer as the first Alaska Native woman to hold the title because Nora's husband, Richard Dauenhauer, held the position in the 1980s and is considered an honorary Alaska Native, having been ceremonially adopted into a Tlingit clan after his marriage.

During brief remarks, Nora Dauenhauer spoke about the satisfaction she has felt in her work.

"A lot of things have happened," she said. "They've all been good since I started working on Tlingit, on English. Everything turned out OK."

She also said she was very proud to be Tlingit and wished she had time to make remarks in both languages.

"I wish I could translate fast.... because I find some wonderful things in Tlingit that I could say, but it takes so long. So I'll just say thank you."

Dauenhauer read two of her poems, "Genocide" and "Salmon Egg Puller — $2.15 an hour." The former is one of her short works — at 17 words, it's nearly a Haiku — and, despite its title, is both serious and playful, pointing up conflicting cultural priorities.

Other well-known poems Dauenhauer has written recognize beloved family members, such as "A Poem for Jim Nagataak'w, my Grandfather, Blind and Nearly Deaf", which appears in the collection "Life Woven With Song" published in 2000.

In addition to poetry, Dauenhauer's work includes memoir, essay, fiction and plays. She has appeared in many anthologies — a collection of which was piled on the table in the back of the room that evening — including "The Alaska Native Reader," ''Alaska at 50: The Past, Present, and Future of Alaska Statehood," and "First Fish, First People: Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim"

With her husband, she has also published many works, some of which include transcriptions of oral interviews conducted with elders. The Dauenhauers' published a four-part "Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature" series, which includes "Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives," ''Haa Tuwunaagu Yis, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory," ''Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories," and "Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka, Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804" with Lydia Black. The fourth was honored with the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 2008.

Nora Dauenhauer also worked as a Tlingit language researcher for the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was principal researcher in language and cultural studies at Sealaska Heritage.

Other honors she has received include the Humanist of the Year by the Alaska Humanities Forum, a Governor's Award for the Arts, an Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award, and the First Peoples Fund's Community Spirit Award.

Nora Marks Dauenhauer is a Raven of the Lukaaxh.adi clan and her Tlingit name is Kheixwnei. Raised to speak only Tlingit until she was 8, she said she became interested in writing and translation in 1969, as a way to honor her father.

The Marks family is well-known for their extensive contributions to the arts and continuation of traditional Tlingit culture. Her parents, Willie and Emma Marks, had 16 children and raised them in a traditional subsistence lifestyle near Juneau.

Also making remarks were Lance Twitchell and Ishamel Hope, both of whom are young fluent Tlingit speakers. They delivered part of their remarks in Tlingit, exchanging playful asides with the Dauenhauers.

Speaking in English, Twitchell, who is assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS, said "To have a Writer Laureate that has written as much in Tlingit as she has in English is just phenomenal."

Forty-three states recognize an official state writer: 41 have a Poet Laureate, Idaho has a Writer in Residence, and Alaska has a State Writer Laureate. In general, the position involves "promoting the reading, writing and appreciation" of the written word among the public, often through readings, workshops, conferences, and other functions.

In Alaska the position was established in the early 1960s, and was confirmed by the Legislature in 1963. It was expanded from Poet Laureate to Writer laureate in 1996, to recognize all genres. It is a two-year appointment.

During his remarks, Richard Dauenhauer noted that he and his wife are the first couple to have shared the title. He also said that Nora's contributions through the role will be uniquely her own.

"She's coming from a very different place than most of us who have been Writer Laureate," he said. "So it should be pretty exciting."

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