Published in The Northern Review 10 ( Summer 1993): 86-90.
"Listen for Sounds": An Introduction to Alaska Native Poets Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Fred Bigjim, and Robert Davis
For Native writers, contemporary Alaska continues to be a challenge. With massive social change sweeping the villages, and renewed emphasis on cultural continuity, Alaska Native writers face the somewhat paradoxical task of crying warnings and singing celebrations at the same time. While the signs of change are all around, the land, the animals, and the spirit of Alaska remains the same. Many of these writers see that it is man's perception, man's imagination of his role that has changed and continues to change. These perceptions of the natural world continue to provide a source for social commentary, cultural continuance, personal renewal, and spiritual redefinition. In 1986 a fine issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review was dedicated to collecting the work of contemporary Alaska Native writers. In 1991, the first extensive anthology of Alaska Native writing, Raven Tells Stories, was edited by Joseph Bruchac and published by Greenfield Review Press.
The publication included 23 Native writers some of whom had been publishing for over twenty years and others who were having their first work published. For these writers, history, though it reveals cultures under stress, is not oppressive but capable of revealing common connections with ancestors and the past. The wide variety of voices and cultural stances reveals two generations for whom rapid change had become a way of life; still, their voices speak of continuity and perception, of the need to look inward and to the northern landscape around us. For them culture and nature are not opposed but reconstitute each other. Perception, spirit, and community merge as the writer reforges ties to what is enduring and unique, to what has and will give strength and survival. Here literature becomes a kind of subsistence practice, nourishing the spirits of individuals and communities.
One of the more accomplished native writers of Alaska is Nora Marks Dauenhauer. Born into a Tlingit family in 1927, she was raised in Juneau and on fishing boats and subsistence camps in southeast Alaska. Her first language was Tlingit, and her first exposure to English was when she started school at eight years of age. She is noted for her work on the Tlingit language and for her efforts as a translator and collector of Tlingit literature. She is the author of one book of poems, The Droning Shaman.
Her poems reflect her dedication to traditional culture as well as her broad education and wide-ranging travels. Informed by the Tlingit worldview, her poems often celebrate the spirit of the land and the people, traditional and contemporary, living and departed. The ancestors' compacts with the natural world supply the contemporary world with its meaning. An individual's perceptual fusion with that living bond of nature/culture provides a path for individual and communal renewal. One of her poems entitled "Old Photograph of Aaanyaalahaash, Chief of the Gaanax.adi" reads in its entirety: "Secure eyes look at me / from a century old face / with a million lines / pressed by age. / Our youth look at me / with pressured faces." The poet's role is more than one of an intermediary. She must intercede, must turn her gaze to the people and the land in a way which allows the two sets of faces to once again look at each other.
But to do that it is sometimes necessary to get the faces looking at something else which connects them to each other, such as their bonds with the natural world. Many of her poems are short juxtapositions much like the Japanese Haiku. Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, the poems provoke insight into the common processes of the human and natural world, as those are the things which bind the generations to a world where nature builds culture as much as man does.
For example, the poem "Wealth" which reads "(for all Tlingit women who slice fish for the smokehouse) Slime squishing / through gold and silver bracelets: / women slicing salmon." Value, meaning, and community are all created in the harvest as the salmon give themselves to the people and the people respond as the have always done. The poet's perception does not create meaning -- that already exists in the communal bond with the animal world, but it allows renewal of her appreciation of true value in the natural world and in the community.
In "Listening for Native Voices (Native Writers' Workshop, Nome, Alaska), Dauenhaueer advises native writers to "Listen for sounds. / They are as important / as voices." / Listen. / Listen. / Listen. / Listen." Though the true voices of young native writers may be submerged beneath English, the land remains true to their experience and identity. As they break free, it is their attention to nature so as to find their true native voices, to listen to nature speak through them, that will ultimately forge the strongest bonds.
Fred Bigjim is an Inupiat Eskimo raised in Sinrock and Nome. He holds two degrees from Harvard and attended law school. He has published two books of poetry, Walk the Wind and Sinrock, a book on native education We Talk, You Yawn, and coauthored Letters to Howard: An Interpretation of the Alaska Native Land Claims.
Some of his poetry explores his experience growing up in a small costal village and then an early move to a more urban setting. He describes the quality of life in those early years and the knowledge which formed him. In the poem "Walk the Wind," he and the other children are watched by ravens and foxes, and they do not fear the snow and ice: "Being Eskimo,/ in the Arctic,/ We always knew / We could walk the wind / And it would carry us / Back home." The tundra is alive, reassuring, and inevitably leads back to community.
Bigjim worries about the youth of today losing the sense of community with people and nature that he knew. The vast changes that Eskimo society has undergone seem to have shattered much of that bond and not replaced it with anything as cohesive and meaningful. In "Moving over the Tundra" he writes "Beyond the tundra / Lies the heart of darkness, / The tears of despair, / The network of images / beckoning you to taste / the bittersweet fruit." These things unravel the bond of the Eskimo and the tundra.
However, while Bigjim is acutely aware of the pain of dislocation and disassociation, his primary tendency is to place such pain in a natural perspective, to unite the cycles of human grief with the cycles of the natural world. Human perspectives seem so limited at times, and the natural world so comforting and eternal. In "Rain Drops" he fuses human tears over death with rain to create a confluence of life which marks human and natural continuance: "Rain, the tears of humans / dripping from life, / Filling the air with clouds floating / And gathering more tears / For drops of rain."
In poems like "Edges," the reader feels Bigjim's urgency to open our awareness of an Eskimo society hanging by fingers "trying to / Hold on to / The edge of life." Yet he knows that those hands also hold the blanket for the blanket toss. In the poem "Blanket Toss," those hands launch the hunter into the "air of anxiety / Reaching for reality and happiness." Though he fails to reach the sky, his vision of the land around him has been enhanced and he falls back to earth "Held tight by human hands." Only the hands of the community can support the far-reaching visions of the natural world, and into its receptive hands we must return.
Deeply concerned with loss, both personal and cultural, Robert Davis' poems forge connections to the past by way of a commitment to reinterpreting older forms and rituals through contemporary concerns. Davis, born in Kake, Alaska considers himself a Neo-traditional Tlingit artist/storyteller, and has published one book of poems, Soul Catcher. For Davis one central way to achieve a fusion of nature and culture is to reemphasize our mythic perception of the world and its processes. The world around us is created by Tlingit stories. He sees the way "shapes transform" and move closer to that process of continual creation. For him, mythic participation is a way out of man's acts of perceptual separation.
Raven has figured prominently in many of his poems. As the paradoxical figure from Tlingit oral tradition, Raven is used by Davis to chart the way meaning is perceived in Tlingit tradition. In "Raven is Two-Faced" he writes, "The world has its top / its underside and / Raventracks lead everywhere." One must perceive the contrasting nature of human understanding and the essential fact of Raven's creative power to begin to move toward mythic perception. As he does, his poems express Raven's continued presence. In "Raven Moves" he begins with "If I make words, they are Raven's echo." The poem continues as he moves back in time experiencing Tlingit ritual. At this point Raven starts "tying all things together / into this dark nest." The poem ends with the rebirth of the poetic "I." He blinks to clear away the paradoxes of the light and dark of human experience. A loud thudding grows in his ears. The thudding is from his heart, from the ritual drums of long ago, and from the difficulty of Raven-like comprehension. Davis refers to Raven as a Black Angel because as Trickster his creative transformations come through many darker experiences. As Davis also explores his own personal sense of loss and belonging, he explores Tlingit history and communal values caught in the paradox of continuance and change. The mythic world fuses history and community. Poems like "Drowning, "Soul Catcher," and "Into the Forest" reveal the dissolving boundaries of nature/culture where legends are whispered "behind each tree, each cedar / straining toward totem."
All three writers move toward a reintegrated world where man and nature renew age-old compacts. Yet along the spectrum from nature to culture each negotiates an agreement whereby the individual, the community, and the land can accommodate the contemporary and perpetuate the traditional.
James Ruppert, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Bigjim, Fred. Sinrock. Portland, Oregon: Press-22, 1983.
---. Walk the Wind. Portland, Oregon: Press-22, 1988.
Bruchac, Joseph, ed. Raven Tells Stories: An Anthology of Alaskan Native Writing. Greenfield,
New York: Greenfield Review Press, 1991.
Dauenhauer, Nora Marks. The Droning Shaman. Haines, Alaska: The Black Current Press,
Davis, Robert. Soul Catcher. Sitka, Alaska: Raven's Bones Press, 1986.