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In the summer of 2000, I was living in Paris. There was a major anthropological conference there, and my friends Dick and Nora Dauenhauer came over to listen in.
Remembering a friend and colleague: Nora Dauenhauer 100417 AE 1 Robert Bringhurst, For the Capital City Weekly In the summer of 2000, I was living in Paris. There was a major anthropological conference there, and my friends Dick and Nora Dauenhauer came over to listen in.
Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Story last updated at 10/4/2017 - 2:30 pm

Remembering a friend and colleague: Nora Dauenhauer

In the summer of 2000, I was living in Paris. There was a major anthropological conference there, and my friends Dick and Nora Dauenhauer came over to listen in.

In those days, making an international phone call from a cheap French hotel could be an intimidating and costly experience. So one night, Dick and Nora came to my cramped little apartment to use the phone. Nora was calling home to tell her mother, Seigeigéi, that she was in Paris and things were fine. Except for the place name, Paris, the entire conversation was in Tlingit, and it was clear that Nora’s remarks met with some incomprehension on the other end.

Nora’s mother was in many respects a very traditional Tlingit woman. She got married when she was twelve and bore her first child (Nora) the following year. In her fifties she became an ardent Christian and began to wear dresses and hats, purses and shoes, that would not have been out of place in any church congregation in rural North America, but in the roots of her experience, there was not very much that had come to Alaska from outside. She knew every bay and island from Yakutat to Wrangell and had an enviable grasp of the highly complex system of Tlingit territories, clans, and social relations, but she had never had to concern herself with European history or geography. She had certainly heard the word “Paris” before, but what did it mean and how did you get there?

Nora spent some time explaining “Paris” to her mother, while Dick sat smiling quietly to himself. He’d listened in on similar conversations more than once before.

To me, hearing Nora talk to her mother on the phone brought both women suddenly and sharply into focus. Nora’s mother lived in one world; we were sitting in another – and Nora was absolutely at home in them both. So of course she got the job of interpreting between them – and she did that job with amazing ingenuity, patience, and care. At that point in her life, she’d been interpreting the world of Tlingit oral literature and ceremonial oratory to the rest of us for roughly thirty years, and she did it so well she made it look easy. Now, for the first time, I was hearing that interpretive skill put to work in the other direction. And suddenly, it looked a lot less easy.

Overhearing that phone call, I developed a new level of respect for Nora’s ability to move back and forth between two very different, very sophisticated realms. And then, just as suddenly, it was done, and Nora, Dick, and I went out, with a lady I knew, to get some dinner at a French café and to talk about things – French novels, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, and Native American languages and storytellers and stories.

The other story I’d like to tell you goes back to a time before I had ever met Nora but reaches forward into the time when I knew her pretty well.

In 1967, Nora’s uncle, Jim Marks, Goox Guwakaan, who was her father’s older brother, was getting ready to die. He was 85 or so and could see it coming. There was a mourning song he wanted sung at his memorial, and a story he wanted people to know about the song – but no one else appeared to know the story, and almost nobody else knew the song. So he decided he’d sing it himself, at his own memorial. Uncle Jim was a real traditional leader, but he was also an expert skipper. He knew all about how diesel-powered trawlers and seiners, and the marine-band radios that came with them, could be integrated into traditional Tlingit life, and he saw no reason why the tape recorder couldn’t be integrated into that life too. So he got his kids to bring in a machine, and he sat up in bed, gave his own rousing memorial speech, and sang his memorial song. A year later, when people gathered in Hoonah for the memorial to Nora’s Uncle Jim, the dead man himself was one of those who opened the proceedings, giving his speech and singing his song.

Rosita Worl, who is now the president of Sealaska Heritage, was there with a tape recorder of her own, so the whole memorial was recorded. There on Rosita Worl’s tape, after all but one of the customary memorial songs has been sung, is Uncle Jim himself, speaking and singing from one machine to another: a cultural feedback loop like no other you’ve ever heard.

That memorial in Hoonah was a major event in Nora’s life, though maybe she didn’t quite know how important it was at the time. At that memorial, her father, Willie Marks, was invested as her Uncle Jim’s successor, warden of the Brown Bear House of Hoonah, and he was given the name K’adóo – which was the name of the man who composed that wonderful song: the song that Jim Marks sang for his own memorial.

Almost no one knew the song then, but a lot of people know it now, because Goox Guwakaan and his borrowed tape recorder made it famous.

A year after that memorial in Hoonah, a young man named Dick Dauenhauer came to Southeast Alaska to teach. He fell in love with the place at once. It was also probably then that he fell in love with Nora Marks. But Dick understood that he had to finish some other things before he could really be useful in Alaska. So he went back to the Lower 48, wrote a learned dissertation on Tlingit oral literature, and collected his doctoral degree. While he was doing that, Nora started visiting her elders in a systematic way, with a tape recorder of her own, inviting them to tell their favorite stories to her and her machine.

Dick moved back to Alaska to stay in 1972. He and Nora were married the following year. And as Willie Marks’s son-in-law, Dick Dauenhauer was given the name Xwayeenák. That was the name of the younger brother of K’adóo. It was the name of the man for whom K’adóo’s memorial song – which became Jim Marks’s memorial song – was originally composed.

So you can see how Dick and Nora’s lives were getting pretty deeply entangled with Uncle Jim and his feedback loop, and with Uncle Jim’s idea that an ancient way of life and some carefully chosen modern contraptions could coexist.

For the people at Jim Marks’s memorial, that tape-recorded song was a powerful thing. But tape recordings of eloquent elders didn’t reach so easily into the minds and lives of outsiders, or of younger people who weren’t fluent in Tlingit. So Nora began transcribing her tapes, writing down the stories and speeches exactly the way the old people had told them. And she and Dick began to work together on translating them into English, and explaining the things that outsiders and young people needed explained. This became their life’s work. They wrote and published thousands of pages. And they did it so gracefully that, as I’ve said, they made it look easy.

There’s a pioneer anthropologist and linguist whom a lot of us in this business really look up to. His name was Franz Boas. Hundreds of people studied with him, and most of them liked to call him Papa Franz. He collapsed of a heart attack in 1942, in his mid eighties, while giving a rousing lecture on the evils of racism. He did an enormous amount of work studying Native American languages and transcribing Native people’s stories, and he encouraged a great many others to do the same. He did more for more people than any other anthropologist ever has.

Nora was something like that. She did an enormous amount of work, but she always had time to help others, teach others, encourage others to do the same. She knew all about the hatred and suspicion that sometimes arise where different languages and cultures confront one another, and she pushed all that aside as if it were nothing. She could push it out of the way without ever so much as raising her voice. So a lot of us owe her much more than we’ll ever repay.

Robert Bringhurst is a Canadian poet, tyographer, author, and translator.