Our thanks to 49 Writers member Lila Vogt for this report on “Alaska Native Writers: Looking Back, Looking Forward”, with Dr. Maria Sháa Tláa Williams, Dr. Jeane Breinig, Jack Dalton and Eskimo Bob.
The UAA Campus Bookstore was the setting for a spirited panel discussion on November 2, 2011 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Alaska Native Heritage Month. The panel was moderated by Eskimo Bob (Bob Petersen). The panelists brought their own perspectives to the discussion of Alaska native writers; past, present and future, and were aided by active participation from the audience. The Bookstore was host to 50 participants. The three panelists were:
Dr. Maria Sháa Tláa Williams is the Director of Alaska Native Studies at UAA and edited The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics published in 2009. The mostly native contributors include scholars, political leaders, activists and artists. Dr. Williams is a Tlingit songwriter as well.
Dr. Jeane Breinig, Haida native and scholar; is also a poet, a UAA English professor and actively involved in the preservation and sharing of Alaska Native oral history.
Jack Dalton has explored his Alaska Native roots in performance, storytelling, playwriting and teaching. One of the guests at the event told Jack that his play, Assimilation, had made more impact on her than “any play I’ve ever seen”.
Dr. Williams introduced the Alaska Native Reader, as a recently published anthology of work by mostly native writers. She had invited her students to the event and asked Gordon Iya, a student from Savoonga, to read a short piece by Larry McNeil from the anthology.
“I was going to cross the street, but came to a ‘don’t walk’ sign. Finally, the red hand turned into a figure of a white man walking. Not wanting to offend anyone, I did my best imitation of a white man walking and crossed the street.”
Gordon shared a story about a group of elders from rural Alaska confronting a ‘walk/don’t walk’ sign for the first time. They thought the sign was telling them to ‘run’, so they did their best to run when signaled to walk.
Dr. Breinig introduced Nora and Richard Dauenhauer’s series of books on
Tlingit Oral Literature. They have devoted their lives to preserving and sharing native oral history. She also highlighted these books by Alaska Native authors:
A Dena’ina Legacy: K’tl’egh’I Sukdu, by Peter Kalifornsky, a collection of stories from the Kenai Dena’ina.
My Own Trail, by Howard Luke; The Gospel According to Peter Johns, Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim, and Joan Kane’s The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife.
She then read a favorite poem by Mary Tall Mountain:
There Is No Word For Goodbye
Sokoya, I said looking through
the net of wrinkles into
wise black pools
of her eyes.
What do you say in Athabascan
when you leave each other?
What is the word
A shade of feeling rippled
the wind- tanned skin,
Ah, nothing, she said,
watching the river flash.
She looked at me close.
We just say Ttaa. That means,
We never leave each other.
When does your mouth
say goodbye to your heart?
She touched me light
as a bluebell.
You forget when you leave us;
you’re so small then.
We don’t use that word.
We always think you’re coming back,
but if you don’t
we’ll see you someplace else.
There is no word for goodbye.
Jack Dalton said of his work; “these are my words, but it is your story” and “these are the words that fell out of my mouth”. Dr. Breinig asked “what is oral tradition? …that which is written on people’s tongues”.
Discussion then followed about the future of Native writing, including transliteration and translation. New technologies, new mediums such as audios, videos are being used more and more, but Dr. Breinig insists that there is still a place for books and reading. The important thing is that history and culture are preserved and shared. There are currently 10,000 hours of video being uploaded to the internet every second, according to Jack.
Writing about and by Alaska Native people has followed a typical trajectory of ethnic writings starting with cultural practices, often written by anthropologists. Oral histories are then captured in written or recorded form. As told to stories are next, then the personal memoir. Then poetry and performance becomes a medium; then fiction. We are just now seeing a move into poetry, theater and fiction by Alaska Native writers.
The Ford Foundation funded the Alaska Native Playwright Project this year and 10 plays were developed. The Ford Foundation was so impressed with the level of talent discovered, they agreed to fund for two more years. Jack Dalton has been working as an Artist in the Schools and he calculates that 20,000 children have written stories in his classes. The future for Alaska Native talent and creative expression is bright.
This Alaska Native Heritage Month event was co-sponsored by the UAA Campus Bookstore, Alaska Center for the Book and the Alaska Native American Indian Heritage Month Committee.