Ernestine Hayes: Voices in the “Wilderness”

I recently sat on a panel of artists who were invited to share how our identities and our work have been shaped by the Alaska landscape. I’m most often surprised and flattered when I’m asked to participate in that sort of event, and in addition to the honor of seeing my name alongside the names of successful, prominent others, I am always moved to contemplate the panel’s initial purpose, in this case, how has landscape shaped my work and my identity?

I’m aware of the good fortune that resides in the circumstances of my birth. As the only child of an always-broke, eighth-grade-educated single mother in the territory of Alaska, I was taken along to Hawk Inlet and Douglas canneries, left to explore the beach’s minnows, encouraged to feed the ever-present seagulls, left free to roam Juneau’s streets, left unsupervised to crawl through abandoned tunnels and to swim in the warm green pools formed by mine tailings piled high on the beach alongside the road to Thane.

On those days and weeks and months when my tubercular mother was in and out of Juneau and Seward public health hospitals, it was my grandmother who gave me care and who taught me my place in the world. The brown bear was my cousin and was also my mother’s grandfather. My own grandfather was the Taku wind. Owls and spiders carried messages. Life was everywhere.

My position in the world was unmistakable: my desire for life was no greater and no less than any other. Thanks to those messages from my grandmother, which were borne out by my own experiences, I learned my place in the world. That place was part of what people call landscape. That landscape emerges from the land.

The part of my identity that I’ve just described, the part that comes so easily to mind, the part that was formed in my earliest, self-shaping years, rises unambiguously from the land. As I thought about the differences between land and landscape and about other ways that landscape and land have shaped identity, it became clear that my identity and my work are shaped by the colonialism that covets the land and appropriates the landscape.

In my first book, Blonde Indian, an Alaska Native Memoir, the character who later becomes known as Old Tom is given advice by his father. “Our land,” Tom’s father tells him. “Our forest. Our fish. Our stories.” Tom’s father goes on to warn him about one thing. “Remember, boy,” Tom’s father says. “Whatever they do to the land they’ll do to us.”

The land is shaped by bureaucratic definition. By institutional bias. By confinement and isolation. We fence the land and declare it wilderness. We pave roads to access its splendor. We call it good.

Writers sometimes ask how to include an Indigenous voice in their stories, their columns, their novels. I have to confess that I don’t know. Replacing an Indigenous voice with one’s own is clearly not the answer, although many people justify that choice. Pretending to be an Indigenous writer is also not the way to go, although too many people allow that to happen. Ignoring Indigenous presence is also far too common among writers. All I can usually say is this: there’s no good way out of a bad situation, and colonialism has brought us to a bad situation.

As writers, though, we can work our way through this colonial maze. We can shatter the colonial lens. We can resist the institutional force we too often don’t even question. We can enliven what generations of complacency have ground to inertia. We can talk about it. We can write about it. We can undo what has been done. We can work. We can speak out. We can join hands.

I enjoyed listening to my colleagues talk about their experiences. I enjoyed talking to people before and after the presentation. It was a pleasant evening, and I was grateful for the opportunity to admire the work of the writers and photographer who sat on the panel with me. But the event at the beautiful setting in Juneau’s downtown library was not my favorite part of the evening.

My grandson and I walked home after the reading. Turning the last corner, we passed an Alaska Native man walking in the other direction. He stopped to thank me for my words about Alaska Native intellectual authority, homeland, colonialism, identity. He told me it had made him feel good to hear what I said.

As writers, we can use our words to stand with someone who now stands alone. We can speak up. We can witness. We can write.

Ernestine Hayes is the author of Blonde Indian, an Alaska Native Memoir. Her work has appeared in Studies in American Indian Literature, ​Tipton Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Tidal Echoes and other publications. She makes her home in Juneau, Alaska, where she was born.

3 thoughts on “Ernestine Hayes: Voices in the “Wilderness””

  1. "As writers, we can use our words to stand with someone who now stands alone."
    Thank you, Ernestine. That may be the best reason to write I've ever heard.

  2. My thanks to you, Ernestine, for these thoughts. I believe that landscape and our self identity are intermingled, so we each experience a different landscape, even when we are walking together in the same place. Perhaps the best we can do was writers is to seek genuineness in revealing ourselves, a quality that I feel deeply in your writing.

    As a fiction writer, I find myself constantly challenged by living in the skins of characters who are not me, trying to represent women when I am a man, trying to live in the thoughts of a person with a completely different childhood and landscape and beliefs. That, of course, is very much the fun of writing and learning from writing.

    Reflecting an Indigenous voice in my writing remains an obstacle for me. I have not attempted to do so. I feel caught between the need to respect the culture and beliefs of my Indigenous neighbors and the disrespect of not including them directly as characters in my writing. So far, I have answered this by not attempting to include these characters, taking a conservative approach.

    But perhaps the best answer is to try writing from these points of view. Whether successful or not, I am certain that I will learn much from the attempt. We will have to see.

    Again, thanks for such pushing me toward these thoughts again.

    Bill Hanson, Juneau

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