ERNESTINE SAANKALAXT’ HAYES
LET ME GO HOME
Ask Alaska writer and professor Ernestine Saankalaxt’ Hayes what memory she would most like to hold forever, and her response is so vivid it practically shimmers.
It’s a moment from her childhood, growing up in Juneau.
As a teenager, Hayes was pulled away from that place, and the land she loves, when she and her mother moved to California. She stayed away, she says, for “25 long years.”
At last, at age 40, broke and homeless, “not for the first time,” she vowed to make her way back.
“I said, ‘let me go home or let me die with my thoughts facing north.’”
It took a few years, but Hayes ¬¬-- who belongs to the Kaagwaantaan, or wolf clan, on the Eagle side of the Tlingit nation -- made it, first to Ketchikan and finally, in 1989, back to Juneau.
“Juneau is my home,” she explains. “And what connects me most to that place is the way my grandmother raised me, to know that I’m related to the various beings and forces and lives … such as the bears and the wind and the forest.”
So ask Hayes, now 72 and the 2016-2018 Alaska State Writer Laureate, for a memory, and her mind naturally winds back to that childhood in Juneau, among the places and beings with whom she felt so connected.
It was still a small town then, she says, and she had a lot of freedom.
“I ran around town from morning ‘til dark. So (my memory) would be something on a summer afternoon, when I was still a child, sitting on the hillside eating yaana.eit (wild celery), always hungry, in the rare sunshine, hoping for dried fish.”
When Hayes finally made her way back to Alaska, she found it had changed. She left Juneau before the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), and before oil ushered in an economic boom across the state.
“When I came back, everything that had been built because of oil was all new to me. I mean you can look around Juneau -- and probably anywhere in Alaska -- and see all the building that occurred after 1975 or so, the last 35 years. Probably the greater percentage of buildings in Alaska were built after the state felt rich. All the highways, parking garages, and community centers, museums, those are all new, and when I came back home to Juneau, the Egan Expressway was new, everything was new … everything was new.”
Almost everything, that is. Hayes was grateful to find one important part of her childhood remained unchanged.
“But when I walked up toward the park where I used to play, Evergreen Bowl, and walked past that on my way to the old cemetery where my family has a plot, and I got closer to the mountains and past where our old house used to stand, and then it was the same. The mountain was still there.”
THE TRANSPLANT TOOK
As the mountain that Hayes remembers so well from childhood remains, so do the traditions she cherishes from her Tlingit roots. She’s written about them and her childhood often, including in her 2006 memoir, “Blonde Indian,” which received the American Book Award and an Honoring Alaska Indigenous Literature award.
Hayes wants her children and grandchildren – and those not yet born -- to know and value those roots as she does.
“I would just want (my great great grandchild) to remember that she is Kaagwaantaan, which is my clan, which is matrilineal, and which is welded to place,” Hayes says. “I think the indigenous kinship systems are the foundation of indigenous identity in Alaska and they root us in that place, whether we live there or not. That is where we’re from.”
“I’m fortunate,” she adds. “Even though I had my sons in California and they were California boys, two of them live in Juneau, three of my four grandchildren live in Juneau, all three of my great-grandchildren live in Juneau, and I’m very very fortunate that that transplant took.”
EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED
In terms of her work as a writer, recently Hayes has particularly enjoyed collaborations with artists of other disciplines.
“I’d like to explore merging disciplines, melding genres, finding the intersection of expression,” she says.
Hayes believes the tendency to “categorize” art, and stick to a single discipline when creating, emerged from a “Western mindset” and doesn’t reflect reality.
“Humans are advancing toward the natural way of seeing the world, which is everything is connected, everything is connected.”
Exploring that connectedness in her writing is a goal.
“It’s a real big thing to try,” she adds. “I don’t even know how to think about it yet, but I guess that’s why they call it exploring. It’s new territory.”
Speaking of new territory, “another thing I’m interested in exploring is my writing, obviously, and I am doing a lot of thinking about prose poetry. I’d like to make the move from lyric prose to prose poetry.”
Asked why she stays in Juneau today, nearly three decades after her return, Hayes doesn’t hesitate. It’s home, she says.
Of course, there are the sensory delights of the place she treasures: “The beach. The clean air on a sunny day, the sound of rain, the sound of small planes, the taste of fresh crab.”
But it’s clearly much more.
“I was gone for 25 long years, but not a day went by that I didn’t long for home,” she says. “I have clung to the west coast in my travels. I don’t like going inland. I stay on the coast. I prefer where the mountains meet the ocean. I love being on the water. I live downtown (in Juneau) right at the foot of the mountain that I grew up looking at every day.”
Hayes says when she turned 40, she realized that time was “grinding on.”
“I wanted to be home,” she says. “I wanted to live in the place that I would eventually die.”
That story of her coming home, as difficult as it was, is what Hayes calls a “defining experience” of her life.
“I always tell people about being gone for so long and coming back and what it took me to come back. I slept in shelters, lived in my car, stood in food lines, camped out. I lived the hard way coming up. I wasn’t homeless for the first time, I was homeless a lot in different cities up and down the west coast, and so I talk about that when I can, because I feel that it defines me. It is the defining series of events of my life.
“And that’s another thing I’ve come to realize,” she adds, “that people have defining experiences that they take as the meaning or the purpose of their lives. And that was mine, the way I came home.
“I ate beans and they weren’t good. I ate green eggs and happy to get it. I was on the street. I was homeless. I locked myself in my car at night so I could sleep…
Hayes says what’s really important is the result of an experience, where it leads, what comes of it. She could define her journey back home in a negative way, she says, and then it would be an “unfortunate theme” of her life. But in the end, she adds, we usually don’t know where our experiences are leading us.
“A lot of times I look back and I think things I didn’t want to happen and they happened, or things I really wanted to happen and they didn’t, it all turned out okay,” Hayes says. “If it had turned out the way I wanted everything to turn out, good lord, who knows, right? You look back and go, oh, that turned out after all, right?
“But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to control what going to happen next, so I guess that’s the next big lesson.”
THE MASTER’S HOUSE
Asked about her hopes for the future, Hayes expresses a wish that unhealthy and entrenched systems in our country will be ended.
“My hope is that the master’s house will be dismantled. … The systems that are ruling us are unfair, are inequitable, are committed to profit at any price, racist, murderous, ugly, and that’s the master’s house.”
This country was built on a foundation of genocide made wealthy by slavery,” she adds. “Whatever happens, capitalism is killing us, it’s killing us, and it’s killing us willingly for profit.”
FINDING A HOME
Alaska, she believes, isn’t immune from those societal dangers. But it is special. And so are those who love it.
“On the one hand, it’s very clear that Alaska is still a colony, Alaska’s a colony. People come here, they get a job and work for a summer or 30 years, and then they go back where they came from, they go back to their home, and they retire in Florida or wherever, and that’s the definition of a colony ... to come and extract resources and leave. So, on the one hand, Alaska is still a colony and that’s really unfortunate that so many people see it as simply a place to enrich themselves.
“But on the other hand, there are people who come to Alaska and they plan to spend two weeks and then they never leave, or they show up in Alaska and they feel like they belong, they think they’ve come home.”
And while her connection to Alaska goes back generations, Hayes doesn’t begrudge those who’ve come to it more recently.
“… (I)t’s not up to us who a place loves, and if you show up in a place and you feel that you’re home and that place is embracing you, who am I to say you don’t belong here? Who am I to say this isn’t your home?”
And maybe, she adds, that’s really all that matters.
“If the place loves you and welcomes you, right? Then you are home and don’t worry about anything else.”