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Nora Marks Dauenhauer was reknowned in Alaska for her contributions to the scholarship of the Tlingit language and culture, as well as her poetry and other writings. She passed away on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in her home on Marks Trail in Douglas, Alaska. She was 90 years old.
Remembering culture-bearer, poet Nora Marks Dauenhauer 100417 AE 1 Capital City Weekly Nora Marks Dauenhauer was reknowned in Alaska for her contributions to the scholarship of the Tlingit language and culture, as well as her poetry and other writings. She passed away on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in her home on Marks Trail in Douglas, Alaska. She was 90 years old.

Nora Marks Dauenhauer talks about being the Alaska State Writer Laureate and her late husband, Richard Dauenhauer, who died earlier this year. Michael Penn | Juneau Empire file photo


Richard Dauenhauer sits with his wife, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, during a reception honoring her as Alaska's State Writer Laureate at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center in November 2012. Capital City Weekly file photo

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Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Story last updated at 10/3/2017 - 6:38 pm

Remembering culture-bearer, poet Nora Marks Dauenhauer

Nora Marks Dauenhauer was reknowned in Alaska for her contributions to the scholarship of the Tlingit language and culture, as well as her poetry and other writings. She passed away on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in her home on Marks Trail in Douglas, Alaska. She was 90 years old.

Dauenhauer’s Tlingit name is Kheixwnéi. Her clan is the Lukaaxh.ádi, whose main crests are the Raven and Sockeye; Lukaaxh.ádi means “people of Lukaaxh.” She was Chookaneidí yádi, child of Chookaneidí through her father Willie Marks, Kéet Yaanaayí. Her mother was Emma Marks, Seigheighei.

She won numerous awards throughout her life, such as Humanist of the Year (1980), Alaska Governor’s Award for the Arts (1989), Community Spirit Award (2005), Lifetime Achievement Award (2007), American Book Award (1991 and 2008), Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame Inductee (2010), Indigenous Leadership Award (2011), and Alaska State Writer Laureate (2012), stated her obituary.

She was the featured writer in 2008 for Tidal Echoes, the literary and art journal of Southeast Alaska. In an interview for the journal, when asked why she writes, she said, “I think that Tlingits need to know that we have poetry in our literature, which is in the oratory.” She went on to say that tradition “influenced me to write, because oratory is so poetic.”

One of her first poems, influenced by that tradition, was “How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River,” she said. Other influences included haiku, which can be seen in poems like “Granddaughters Dancing,” and her life, she said, like in “Life Woven with Song,” a compilation of short stories, essays, and poetry.

Her poetry was widely anthologized, and she released the collection “The Droning Shaman” through Black Current Press in 1988. Her late husband Richard Dauenhauer, who died in 2014, was the Alaska State Writer Laureate in 1981, making them the only couple in the state to receive the same honor.

The pair worked for decades to bring the Tlingit oral tradition, language, and understanding of the culture to the world. Richard was a linguist, poet and scholar, and Nora was a scholar and poet whose first language was Tlingit. Together they transcribed and translated Tlingit history and oratory in their Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature series. The couple won the American Book Award in 2008 for their work on the fourth volume “Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America, The Battles of Sitka 1802 and 1804,” co-edited by the late Lydia Black of Fairbanks. Their work was also the basis for “Beginning Tlingit,” the main text used in Tlingit classes at the University of Alaska Southeast and at SHI.

Remembering Dauenhauer

“They both had such eagerness to be understood, to have the brilliance of the Tlingit language shine out and to have the cultural identity of the Tlingits survive and thrive into the future,” said Kathy Ruddy, Nora’s literary executor.

Ruddy described herself as a longtime family friend of the Dauenhauers. She met Richard the year she came to Juneau in 1977 when he helped translate a poem for her from German. She took classes from both Richard and Nora, and later helped edit several of their books. She is one of five of a committee working to put out the fifth volume of Richard and Nora’s Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature series called “Raven,” which should be out “in the next year or so,” she said. The book will have 57 stories told in Tlingit. It’s a project that has been ongoing since the 1970s.

“Book number five is the work of two lifetimes. …They were an extraordinary team,” she said.

Tlingit and Iñupiaq poet and storyteller Ishmael Hope said Nora was a supportive and empowering figure in his life. Nora and Richard were family friends for as long as he could recall, he said, and later he worked with them in culture camps, poetry readings, seminars and other events.

“I have a sense of the world that they participated in and fostered. It’s an amazingly beautiful world …The way they built the literary and cultural community was really just enormous. There is a certain kind of thing about the way they welcomed people. The undercurrent of enormous depth, of time, of space and of cultural lifeways, of history that Nora knew and knew intimately, and it’s different from the world we know with our English constructs. It’s specific and it’s a system and it’s an ecology. Nora knew it so well. She said ‘I’m Tlingit through and through.’ She wasn’t bragging. That was just the world she knew,” he said.

The Dauenhauers’ level of collaboration was “extremely unique,” and the way they focused on elders, making them prominent in the work, was “revolutionary,” he said.

“They wanted to make the elders’ work front and center. This is through Nora’s insistence. She wanted their words, their life stories, their perspectives, but directly through the Tlingit language, documented directly and featured the most prominently in any book that they came out with,” he said.

Their work affected not just other scholars, but the whole Tlingit community, he said, fostering “an intellectual and cultural milieu.”

“What works is that people know internally, they know in their body, they know in their intuition what it’s like to be in the community, what it’s like to be around elders, what it’s like be at a ceremony. What the Dauenhauers’ books do so amazingly is bring back some of the complex understandings that may be hard to transmit when you have a language barrier between Tlingit and English,” Hope said, giving the example of a potlatch, which is conducted almost primarily in Tlingit, and how it can be difficult to understand if a person only speaks English. “So what the Dauenhauers did for the Tlingit community was give them an inside look into lifeways that they are already a part of, already involved in but they may have needed to brush up on what is going on.”

With the loss of Nora Dauenhauer, comes too, the loss of connections to past ancestors and their knowledge, he said. When an elder passes, they take with them specifics: how someone told a story, or why another person was selected to give an important speech. Those specifics “are incredibly relevant and wonderful to ponder,” he said. Dauenhauer also served as a connection to elders of the past, through her memories.

He hopes that people will think on how Dauenhauer lived her life and learn from it.

“She told me ‘The things you want to do in your life, do it now.’ I think that’s because of how brilliantly and lovingly her elders lived their lives. She strove to live a life like them. What I want to affirm is that she did. She was an elder, a true Tlingit elder, and the contributions she left behind are intact and people are going to take it in. It’s only a matter of how dedicated and motivated and focused people are. Her work and her legacy are set out. All we need to do is take the time, process it, and be with it, and strive ourselves to live that way,” he said.

Clara Miller is Capital City Weekly’s staff writer. She can be reached at clara.miller@capweek.com.