We Alaskans

'Blonde Indian' gives Alaskans plenty to talk about

HAINES -- I told my author friend Ernestine Hayes of Juneau that I'm thinking of writing a book called "Walking with Friends," which would really be about talking with friends. Which is what we had been doing all day.

We were snowbound in my living room on a Thursday afternoon, staying close to the phone in the unlikely event that a sudden break in the storm would last long enough for her to fly home to Juneau. Ernestine had arrived Wednesday, and there was not a ferry until Monday. She had already missed her Skagway event because she couldn't get there, even though it is only 14 miles up Lynn Canal as the small plane flies, because they were grounded. The drive from Haines to Skagway, up the Haines Highway and around via Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and down the Klondike Highway is about 350 miles. Besides taking forever, she would need a passport, and the two mountain passes were snowed in.

Ernestine was here because her Alaska Native memoir, "Blonde Indian," has been chosen by Alaska Writer Laureate Frank Soos as the first Alaska Reads title of his tenure. The hope is that libraries, bookstores, schools, book clubs -- we Alaskans -- will all get together and read the same book so we have something in common to talk and think about. It may even help shape our state's post-oil future.

"Blonde Indian" gave Ernestine and me plenty of fodder for dicey conversations we might not normally jump right into -- about race, privilege, history, education, the difference between growing up Native and poor versus white and well-off, to name a few. Of the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase, which Haines and Juneau plan to celebrate in 2017, she noted, "Does anyone really believe Russia owned Alaskans and that they could 'transfer' us to the United States?"

'We belong to the land'

While we listen for a plane and wait for the phone to ring, she tells me about the time she spoke to a group of volunteers at a women's shelter about her perspective as a Native woman who had suffered abuse, and ended up trying very hard not to argue with a white social worker who insisted she never notices color or race, that everyone looks the same to her, which Ernestine thought was absurd. I shared with her how my brown-skinned daughter (she is adopted) had been told by a friend that she was white inside, and that was meant as a compliment. Ernestine nodded. I'm sure I wouldn't have told her that had her book not opened up the topic, and had she not been so generous in discussing race relations.

Ernestine writes about growing up in the old Juneau Indian Village in a bare wood house without plumbing. She was reared by her Tlingit grandmother while her mother was hospitalized for tuberculosis. Social workers sent her here to the former Haines House orphanage when she was 13. She ran away, all the way to Idaho before winding up in California. She returned to Juneau about 25 years later after hitting bottom.

"I was finally homeless. I was finally broke. I was finally 40. I would go home now, or die with my thoughts facing north." She made it back to Juneau, went to college at 50 and at 70 is an English professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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She told an audience at the Haines library that she knew she had to get back to the land she was from, and it would save her. "Who our land now belongs to, or if land can even be owned, is a question for politicians and philosophers. But we belong to the land," she writes. There is not one Tlingit person "who will not say, 'This is our land, for we still belong to it.' "

Bill, who is white and tall with a dark shock of hair that falls into his glasses, volunteers at the library and sings bass in the choir. He lost his wife, the love of his life, to cancer not long ago and misses her terribly. He stood up and asked Ernestine if the land loved him too -- he whose ancestors were from Scandinavia and North Dakota and who had spent most of his adult life in New Mexico -- yet when he arrived in Haines with his wife, he knew in his bones that these mountains and inlets were his home. Is that possible?

My favorite place in the whole world is my own backyard. I know how Bill feels. I have read how Ernestine feels. I know I'm not of this land the same way Ernestine is. What would she say?

"Yes," Ernestine replied. "The land loves those who love it back."

Like a prose poem

"Blonde Indian" is so Alaskan, so personal, yet it is also the most literary of books in that it reads like a prose poem. Ernestine weaves together alternating threads of Tlingit legend, natural history, her life, and the tale of Young Tom and Old Tom, who are fictional characters whom Ernestine calls archetypes. But they were so real that I wasn't the only one squirming in my seat and covering my eyes, when she relentlessly read Young Tom's drunken monologue, delivered as he drowned.

I asked Ernestine if she gets criticized for writing stories like Young Tom's. She smiled, and nodded yes, but she was too old to worry about it.

By lunchtime Friday, the weather had changed enough for Ernestine to fly home, and with any luck, to a library near you, so you can continue the "Blonde Indian" conversation.

Haines author Heather Lende's third book, "Find the Good," was published last year. Read her blog or her Facebook page.

Heather Lende

Heather Lende is the author of "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News From Small-Town Alaska." To contact Heather or read her new blog, The News From Small-Town Alaska, visit www.heatherlende.com.

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