The Rasmuson Foundation has named author Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes of Juneau as its 2021 Distinguished Artist.
The award honors lifetime achievement in creative fields and contribution to the state’s arts and culture, and comes with an award of $40,000.
Hayes, who is Tlingit, is most widely known for “Blonde Indian, an Alaska Native Memoir,” published in 2006. The book recounts how she left Alaska at age 15 and lived in California for 25 years. After experiencing financial hardship and homelessness, she decided to return home to Juneau.
Her 2017 book “The Tao of Raven, an Alaska Native Memoir” describes how Hayes, who had never graduated from high school, completed college at the University of Southeast in her 50s and became a professional writer and professor. It also considers the prejudice faced by Alaska Natives.
Among other honors, ‘Blonde Indian’ received an American Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN Non-fiction Award in 2007.
In a video accompanying the announcement of the Rasmuson award, Hayes said she’d always been a reader and felt that she could write. When she enrolled in college, she said, she took a class on Native American literature and realized that’s what she had been writing.
“The open-ended structure, the reader-listener participation, different perspectives and points of view and the calling of nature and place is so important. I was writing all that and it turned out that that is Native literature,” Hayes said.
Hayes was Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2017 to 2019. In addition to her memoirs, Hayes has published poetry, children’s books, creative nonfiction, short stories and essays. Her work has appeared in Studies in American Indian Literature, Tipton Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cambridge History of Western American Literature and other publications. She earned a Master of Fine Art in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage and taught at the University of Alaska Southeast.
“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 wrote in an announcement of the Rasmuson award.
According to the Rasmuson Foundation, Hayes was selected from a slate of nominees by a panel of Alaska artists and art experts. The remaining 2021 artist awards — 25 Project Awards and 10 Fellowships — will be announced later this year.