About the artist
Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes is a writer and professor emerita at the University of Alaska Southeast. Born in Juneau in what is called the “old Indian village” on the land of the A’akw Kwaan Lingít, she says her path was framed by place and circumstance: village, mountain, colonization. She is of the Eagle moiety, a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Lingít (Tlingit) nation. Her writing is critically acclaimed and rich with the complexities of Indigenous identity. One of her best-known books is “Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir” (University of Arizona Press, 2006), for which she received the American Book Award. She was Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2017 to 2019. Her published works include poetry, a children’s book, creative nonfiction and fiction.
2021 Distinguished Artist
Over the course of a long career, Hayes has practiced literary arts at a very high level. Her biggest published success came in 2004 with “Blonde Indian, An Alaska Native Memoir.”
2005 Project Award
Hayes attended an annual Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities.
‘Our lives are stories telling themselves’
Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes is of the Eagle moiety, a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Lingít (Tlingit) nation. Born in Juneau in what is called the “old Indian village” on the land of the A’akw Kwaan Lingít, she says her path was framed by place and circumstance: village, mountain, colonization. Her writing is critically acclaimed and rich with the complexities of Indigenous identity. Two of her best-known book-length publications are “Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir” (University of Arizona Press, 2006), for which she received the American Book Award, and “The Tao of Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir” (University of Washington Press, 2016).
Her literary talents are widely recognized; she was Alaska State Writer Laureate, 2017–2019. Other recent honors include a commendation from the Alaska Legislature in 2017, the Award for Literary Achievement from the Alaska Native Studies Conference in 2016, and an Alaska Literary Award from the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation in 2015.
Ernestine Hayes: 2021 Distinguished Artist – Mini-documentary by Pat Race
Hayes’ published works include poetry, a children’s book, creative nonfiction and fiction. She creates a type of magical realism and often weaves in biography and Indigenous creation stories, with emotion and landscape. “The Tao of Raven” and “Blonde Indian” chronicle her personal journey as an Indigenous woman and writer and blur the line of poetry and prose. Her writing style is musical in nature and the words are like a song. She contextualizes myth, geography, culture and her own life’s journey in a rich landscape of words that capture emotion, beauty and meaning.
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.”
Hayes received her Master of Fine Art in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage and taught at the University of Alaska Southeast, where she retired as professor emerita of English in 2019. She made major contributions to the field of Alaska Native studies as well as creative writing. Her academic career incorporated developing Indigenous pedagogy and curriculum that left an indelible mark on her students and her colleagues. At UAS, she received the Faculty Excellence in Research and Creative Activity Award and was known for mentoring both students and other faculty. “She always, always put students first,” said Emily Wall, who worked alongside Hayes as a UAS professor of English. “What are their needs? What are their challenges? Where do they come from? When decisions were made, booklists created, courses designed, Ernestine offered us this guiding light. Thanks to her fierce defense of our students, and her lifelong work to better understand their histories and needs, she has made this university a better place for everyone who walks through our doors.”
Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes has dedicated her life to the arts, education and service to community. Her board service includes the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Alaska Native Studies Council. A sought-after speaker and presenter, she has led workshops for incarcerated men and women, performed at the Frye Museum in Portland, Oregon, and organized the Lingít Clan Conference’s inaugural literary reading hosted by Alaska’s first lady. Over the years she has given numerous keynotes including at the UAS Power and Privilege Symposium and the Native Arts and Culture Foundation in Portland.
One must read her words to get a sense of her power and mastery at capturing place, people and magic.
The Spoken Forest
I was thinking about the forest one day
and it came to me —
are not lost.
All these riches are being kept for us
by our aunties, our uncles,
our grandparents, our relatives —
those namesakes who walk and dance
wearing robes that make them seem like bears
Our loved ones.
Those beings who live in the spoken forest.
They are holding everything for us.
— Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes
“The Spoken Forest” is part of Poems in Place and is permanently installed at Totem Bight State Park in Ketchikan.
About the writer
Maria Shaa Tláa Williams, who is Tlingit, is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage with a joint appointment in Alaska Native Studies and the Department of Music.