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Noted Alaska historian, linguist Richard Dauenhauer dead at 72

Dick Dauenhauer, with his wife, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, participated in the North Words Writers Symposium in May 2014. Katie Emmets / Skagway News

Former Alaska Poet Laureate Richard Dauenhauer died of pancreatic cancer on Tuesday in Juneau. He was 72. A noted historian, linguist, editor and educator, Dauenhauer made particularly important contributions to the preservation of Tlingit lore and language.

Rosita Worl, executive director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, which published major work by Dauenhauer and his wife, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, said in an email that “Dick Dauenhauer’s contributions to Tlingit culture are immeasurable. ... He brought to life the words and wisdom of our ancestors that otherwise might have passed into oblivion but for his persistence in collecting the stories and his ability to transcribe and translate and publish the oral traditions of our ancestors. ... His Tlingit language grammars have been significant in contributing to the survival of our language.” 

Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1942, Dauenhauer earned degrees in Russian, Slavic and German before coming to Anchorage in the late 1960s, where he taught at Alaska Methodist University. He published translations of Russian poetry but had a particular interest in bardic traditions of ancient civilizations. 

“The Vikings and Anglo-Saxon founding fathers would take a poet into battle to crank out an ode about them,” he told a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News in 1986. “That was the way things were done.”

At AMU, now Alaska Pacific University, he met his future wife, Nora Marks. Marks, with family roots in Yakutat and Hoonah, was fluent in the Tlingit language and traditions. Through her, Dauenhauer realized that the epic literary style of “Beowulf” and “Iliad,” centuries removed from contemporary Western society, remained within living memory in Southeast Alaska. 

Together, the Dauenhauers became a formidable team, recording, documenting and translating the memories of Tlingit elders over a span of nearly a half-century. Their many published works range from doctoral theses to elementary primers. 

Among their most important books were those in the four-volume “Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature” series. They received two American Book Awards from the Before Columbus Foundation, for the second and fourth volumes, “For Healing Our Spirit” and “The Russians in Tlingit America,” the latter written with Lydia Black. These books recorded histories and tales that would likely have been lost forever without the Dauenhauers' efforts.

Worl noted his contributions as a teacher. “He mentored many students through the years, many who are carrying on his work,” she said. “We mourn the loss of a great person, but we are thankful that he came into our lives and culture.”  

Dauenhauer learned Tlingit and taught upper-division classes in the language at the University of Alaska Southeast. UAS Chancellor John Pugh tapped him to start the college’s Alaska Native Languages and Culture program. 

Though he was scholar of several languages, it was those of Alaska that most concerned him. “Nothing that we do in German or Russian at the University of Alaska Southeast is going to impact the future of the language,” he told the Associated Press in 2005. “But with Alaska Native languages we can make a difference. With the Native languages in Alaska, this is the homeland, and if the language dies out here it dies out forever.” 

In addition to his work as a collector, anthologist, translator and editor, Dauenhauer was a well-respected poet, like his wife, the current Alaska writer laureate. During his four-year tenure, which ended in 1986, he sought to elevate the public perception of literature in his adopted state. He said he particularly lamented the mindset of Outside publishers who thought “Alaska poetry has to have a moose in it.” 

Promoting the best in contemporary writers went hand in hand with his enthusiasm for Native traditions. As early as the 1980s he was involved in efforts to “design a (university) humanities curricula that would put the classics of the Alaska Native oral literature in the curriculum along with European and Asian literature.” 

In her email, Worl noted that Dauenhauer “was a perfectionist in wanting to ensure accuracy.” But for all his seriousness as a scholar, Dauenhauer also had a quick sense of humor.

Noting the lack of any ceremony at the installation of a new Alaska poet laureate -- an honorary post now called writer laureate -- he once quipped, “Maybe we could all go to Chilkoot Charlie’s.”