“I wander down the aisles of my childhood searching for gumboots and berries. I fill my basket with sugar and bread and carry it home, where I sit alone in my room, hungry for dryfish.”
Sixty-five years ago, Ernestine Saankalaxt’ Hayes was a Tlingit first-grader living at “the edge of the village” in Juneau.
The time she spent indoors with her grandmother, outdoors with other Tlingit people or alone in nature, felt natural, comfortable: “I had no sisters or brothers and I had few friends, but wild plants grew on the hill beside our old house, and a creek led up the mountain behind me, and seaweed and crabs danced in the ocean channel at my feet. I never questioned that I belonged.”
Hayes soon discovered a parallel world with paved sidewalks, umbrellas and “unknowable, enchanted people who prepared and ate unknowable, enchanted food”—a place where people treated her with hostility and indifference.
One day, she fell, hitting her head on a pipe sticking out of the ground and badly cutting her eyebrow. At school, Hayes showed the wound to her teacher and school nurse. They both brushed her off, sending the 6-year-old child to walk—alone and bleeding—to the Native hospital 10 blocks away where her mother lived on a tuberculosis-quarantine ward.
“The doctor stitched my eyebrow after the nurse tenderly cleaned it,” Hayes wrote in her 2006 memoir, Blonde Indian. “They told me that my mother knew I was downstairs and was sending me her love right now. They washed my hands and sent me home.”
Hayes’ books and essays reveal the turbulence, tensions, tragedies and triumphs she experienced and witnessed as a Tlingit Kaagwaantaan clan member growing up in Southeast, and how those shaped her life.
Now, Hayes is the 2017 Alaska State Writer Laureate, the second Alaska Native woman the Alaska State Council on the Arts has chosen to receive that honor; this year, the Alaska Humanities Forum participated in choosing the writer laureate.
The Alaska State Laureate program is an honorary two-year appointment recognizing an Alaska writer who has demonstrated exemplary professionalism, literary excellence and a commitment to the advancement of literary arts in Alaska. The award began in the early 1960s when the Juneau Poetry Society created the Poet Laureate Program. In 1996, ASCA broadened the position to include all genres of writing by establishing the Alaska State Writer Laureate.
A committee of former state laureates, literary administrators and agency partners chose Hayes after reviewed nominations from the public.
Hayes assumes the post of Alaska State Writer from Frank Soos, an award-winning writer, professor, and advocate for the literary arts from Fairbanks.
In addition to memoir, Hayes’ published works include poetry, children’s books, creative nonfiction, short stories, essays and articles. Her work has appeared in Studies in American Indian Literature, Tipton Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cambridge History of Western American Literature and other publications.
Hayes says she learned her name had been selected a few days before the formal announcement was published.
“As a woman who returned to Alaska at the age of 40 after such a long absence—homeless, unemployed, broke—and who went on to enroll at the University of Alaska Southeast as a 55-year-old freshman, I was convinced that going on to [a] UAA Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Literary Arts and returning to Juneau to teach at UAS was more than I could have dreamed,” she said. “It’s been plain luck and a lot of determination that has brought me to this juncture, along with the support and encouragement of many, many people.”
One of those people was UAA’s Jeane Breinig, an English professor who serves as interim associate vice chancellor, Alaska Natives and Diversity. Breinig first met Hayes when the future writer laureate came to UAA to complete her M.F.A.
“I was delighted and honored to be invited to serve on her M.F.A. committee,” Breinig said. “She is a thoughtful, insightful person who quickly sees beneath the surface of things and articulates hard truths with kindness and compassion. There is a lush quality to her writing that many find engaging—hypnotic almost. Wonderful news she won this award.”
UAA CWLA faculty member Jo-Ann Mapson said Hayes was a student in the very first UAA fiction workshop she taught.
“She was older than most of the students, and could tell she had a smidgen of wit others did not notice,” Mapson recalled. “Her first stories were beautifully written, but they did not yet have her beautiful endings. I will never forget the night a student cried at a story Ernestine wrote about how people treat Natives. At the end of the class she came up to me and said, ‘I never knew this before, but my stories have power!’ She giggled a little at that. Her feedback in class was terse and informed.”
Eventually, when Hayes was starting her last semester, Mapson and Sherry Simpson—a fellow UAA professor and writer—talked.
“[Simpson] felt Ernestine’s chances of getting a book deal meant that all her stories—every one of them coming from the bedrock of her life experiences—could be recast as memoir,” Mapson said. “I agreed. It was hard to send her across the hall to Sherry’s office. It was the right move for all, and she has several published books, all nonfiction. I loved watching her progress, listening to the insights she came to, and how that figured in her writing. Her body of work is just begun. A student turned colleague. Does it get any better than that? No one deserves Alaska State Laureate more than Ernestine. She’s always going to be a special person in my life.”
Sherry Simpson directed Hayes’ M.F.A. thesis in 2003.
“She finished a three-year degree in two years through sheer hard work, incredible focus, and drive,” Simpson said. “An extraordinary thesis became an extraordinary memoir that’s filled with painful truths and deep beauty. It offers something for every Alaskan.”
Simpson says anyone who’s heard Hayes speak knows she is also a talented orator.
“All of her gifts spring from a blazing passion for her homeland, her heritage, and the possibility of a future in Alaska that’s better than the past has been for so many people,” Simpson said. “I can’t think of a better person to inspire, teach, and challenge us. I always knew she’d be a writer laureate for Alaska, and I’m just glad it’s sooner rather than later.”
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage