For immediate release
May 21, 2021
Contact: Lisa Demer, 907-545-3555 (cell)

Anchorage, AK – Rasmuson Foundation has named literary talent Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes of Juneau as its 2021 Distinguished Artist. The award, which includes $40,000, honors a lifetime of creative excellence and outstanding contribution to the state’s arts and culture. Hayes is the 18th Alaskan named by the Foundation as a Distinguished Artist.

Ernestine Hayes of Juneau is the Foundation’s 2021 Distinguished Artist. (Photo by Pat Race)

Hayes has received critical acclaim for writing that explores the complexities of Indigenous identity. She is of the Eagle moiety, a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Lingít (Tlingit) nation. Her art examines privilege and trauma, myth and wisdom, culture and resilience. She crisscrosses genres: creative nonfiction and poetry, fiction and children’s literature. Her piece “The Spoken Forest” was permanently installed as a Poem in Place at Totem Bight State Park in Ketchikan. Another work, “Aanka Xootzi ka Aasgutu Xootzi Shkalneegi” or “Town Bear Forest Bear,” stands out as the first children’s book published as an original story in Tlingit. As her colleague Maria Shaa Tláa Williams put it, Hayes blurs the line between poetry and prose. Two of her best-known publications are “Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir,” for which she received the American Book Award, and “The Tao of Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir.”

Hayes has dedicated her life to the arts, education and service to community. Born in Juneau, cared for early on by grandparents while her mother was treated for tuberculosis, she tells of “25 long years” in California before making the journey home. As a teen, she didn’t finish high school but at age 50 she took her GED and enrolled in college at University of Alaska Southeast. She received her Master of Fine Art in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage and taught at the University of Alaska Southeast. She received the Faculty Excellence in Research and Creative Activity Award before retiring as professor emerita of English in 2019. She has served on the boards of the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Alaska Native Studies Council. From 2017 to 2019, she shared her passion for writing with all Alaskans as Alaska State Writer Laureate. She has worked to give voice to those who too are often overlooked — who have been incarcerated or homeless or victimized. She says any recognition she gets “is not only mine. It belongs to Tlingit people.”

“Ernestine Hayes is, simply put, a gifted writer whose way of describing the world changes the reader,” said Diane Kaplan, Foundation president and CEO. “Her own story is beyond what most of us could imagine. As she will tell you, she’s experienced homelessness. She’s been broke. She lost her home to fire. Yet she remains incredibly giving with her time, talent and spirit, full of light and compassion.”

Asked to reflect on her work, Hayes said: “It often seems to me that we’re simply the vehicles by which stories present themselves to the world, and our lives are those stories telling themselves.”

Learn more about Hayes and watch a film about her work at our Distinguished Artist virtual gallery. Here is a direct link to the film.

A panel of Alaska artists and art experts helps the Foundation select a Distinguished Artist from a slate of nominees. The recognition is part of the Foundation’s Individual Artist Awards. The remaining 2021 awards — 25 Project Awards and 10 Fellowships — will be announced later this year.

[Download the press release here.]

About the Foundation
Through grantmaking and initiatives, Rasmuson Foundation aims to promote a better life for all Alaskans. Main funding areas are homelessness, health care, the arts, organizational and community development and human services including projects to address domestic violence, child abuse and services for seniors and people with disabilities. The Foundation was created in 1955 by Jenny Rasmuson to honor her late husband E.A. Rasmuson.