Writing the Distance: Ernestine Hayes

The Covid 19 pandemic is isolating Alaskan writers. We can no longer attend workshops or public readings. The coffee bars where we met with other writers are closed. To bridge these physical gaps, 49 Writers is providing this on-line forum for Alaskans writing the distance. Today, Alaska’s former Writer Laureate, Professor Ernestine Hayes, writes about the virus of racism.

Bury This Story

It will rain, my grandmother announces. We breathe in the full rainforest air, we absorb its indistinct, blurred grey, we carry it into our next moments, our next years, we relate its smells to soft rain, its swirling air to sudden showers, its sunlight to rare thunder. When you see yourself walking up the street, approach and embrace yourself, she cautions. At once I imagine my own reflection walking toward me on Willoughby Avenue. I imagine myself walking in the direction of our old house at the hospital end of the village, my favorite mountain at my side. I imagine my two selves approaching one another. I imagine caressing my indistinct face. I imagine embracing my blurred other self.

An old house at the hospital end of the Juneau Indian Village lingers, invisible and unremarked, upon a thinly outlined townsite parcel on any map of Juneau that acknowledges Indigenous presence. Not all of them do.

I still live in that old house so long ago demolished. I perch at the unpainted doorstep and enjoy a sunny day. I linger in the front room listening to Grandma laugh in Tlingit while she drinks wine with wintered-in friends too broke for South Franklin Street bars. I rest on a bare cot at the side of a lighted kitchen where, along with their card-shark friends and neighbors, my mother and uncle groan over unlucky hands of canasta and pinochle and crib. I step aside for my aunt Ida as she struts out the door, ruby lips and rouged cheeks keeping time with her marabou jacket. Everyone is laughing. No one at the table has yet died.

Aunt Ida dies in the 1990s of diabetes. Uncle Buzz dies in the 1960s of alcohol. So does my grandma. My mother dies in the 1990s of emphysema and complications of a lifelong broken heart. But she’s still young enough at that card table to cherish hidden dreams of the only man she will say she ever loved.

We were doing our best to survive a new pandemic, a long-acting virus, blatant and insidious, seductive and deadly, an indiscriminate virus that lingers on every surface, that modifies its symptoms with each host, that spreads from teacher to child, doctor to patient, judge to hostage, grandmother to mother to me. We were learning to keep our distance, to shelter in place, to wear masks to protect others from our colonized despair.

Only a few blocks from that now-empty townsite parcel in the Juneau Indian Village appears the Casey-Shattuck neighborhood, appropriated long ago under laws facilitating theft of Indigenous lands, removal of Indigenous rights, erasure of Indigenous presence. I have no memory of walking down the streets of that neighborhood where little girls from my end of the village were not invited. Years later I found in that neighborhood, now called the Flats, a comfortable, cozy home where from the front window I could see the cemetery where my uncle and my grandmother and my mother wait to be fed.

I still love that home in the Flats, the home that offered middle-class comforts I’d never known. I adjust the Toyostove and close the paneled curtains. I admire spring crocus blooming in the front yard. I gaze across the street to a stand of hemlock trees under which my family warms the earth.

Not far from that graveyard—past Evergreen Bowl, past the governor’s mansion, past memories of the courthouse jail where our relatives still suffer—appears the original Juneau Townsite district, appropriated long ago under laws facilitating theft of Indigenous lands, removal of Indigenous rights, erasure of Indigenous presence. I may not have been invited into those four-story homes, but I still run past them on my way to grade school, to the Mt. Roberts trailhead, to Basin Road and the wooden flumes on Mt. Juneau. I walk down the hill and find my grandmother laughing with friends in the Dreamland Bar on South Franklin Street. I window-shop with my mother on Saturday evenings. I skip toward the cold-storage docks for summer afternoons of happy-go-lucky fishing, my favorite mountain still at my side. Now, four generations of my family will call an old house there our home.

It will rain, I will announce to my grandchildren. When you see yourself walking up the street, approach and embrace, I will caution. We will sit at the family table laughing and groaning over the lucky and unlucky hands we’ve all been dealt. We will find our shelter. We will rid ourselves of this colonized despair. We will unmask.


Ernestine Hayes is a Tlingit writer and professor who lives in Juneau. She is author of the memoirs Blonde Indian and The Tao of Raven. From 2017-2018, she served as Alaska State Writer Laureate.
“Bury This Story” will appear later this summer in the journal Territory.




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