Ernestine Hayes laughs at a Sept. 2015 49 Writers Crosscurrents panel called “Shaped by the North.”

Ernestine Hayes laughs at a Sept. 2015 49 Writers Crosscurrents panel called “Shaped by the North.”

Writer laureate launches story project for Alaskans

Everyone who is alive today has created their own unique stories simply through their existence. Alaska State Writer Laureate Ernestine Hayes is an advocate for those whose stories would otherwise have gone unheard. As the 2016 Alaska State Writer Laureate, Hayes was expected to develop a project relatable to her tenure and executed during her honorary, two-year appointment. The State Writer Laureate began in the early 1960s and is now a partnership between the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Alaska Humanities Forum. A preliminary meeting with the Humanities Forum initiated Hayes’ project launch: a series of state-wide writing workshops focused on encouraging participants to tell the story of someone whose voice would not otherwise be heard; they will also be encouraged to tell their own stories. This project will span 18 months. “My ideas for this project were pretty ambitious. But we understood that things can morph, things can change as we go along. That’s the characteristic of something that is dynamic and alive,” Hayes said. “Our first telephone meeting about this was in January. We’ve had regular meetings since we developed this project and as we go along we will look at what works and what could work better.” Hayes belongs to the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Eagle side of the Tlingit Nation. She is known for American Book Award winning memoir “Blonde Indian” and her fiction and nonfiction book “The Tao of Raven.”

It has long been a priority of Hayes’ to try and help get the voices that aren’t normally heard to be more widely read and recognized. “Everyone has a unique story and it can be workshopped,” Hayes said. For some there is little opportunity to share their experiences, like those who are incarcerated, in poverty, or who live off the grid. These voices Hayes wants to try and make sure are heard.

In early June, the first workshop in the project, “Container of Stories,” was completed in Juneau with 14 participants. “As I explained to those who participated, we’re still figuring it out,” Hayes said. “We are developing it to try and see how it works.”

Hayes gave handouts to the participants and they did a few writing exercises together that Hayes sees easily fitting into the overall project. Some of the participants had their own ideas for stories while others came in hopes of receiving an idea for writing. The workshop produced what Hayes called “some wonderful stories.” “I realized after that workshop that we need to help people think up what they want to write about,” Hayes said. “My suggestions are to write about someone you heard of, someone you once knew, someone with a story that wouldn’t ordinarily be heard. Some people would like more help in isolating a particular story they would like to tell.” One of the examples that Hayes used to explain the kind of writing she is looking for was from the story she tells of Chamai in her book “Blonde Indian.” Chamai was a deadhead that gave up her daughters when she was a young mother, who Hayes described as having “a really singular story.” Hayes used the experiences Chamai shared with her and put those in context with her own story. Hayes is shooting for that kind of feature to pop up in participants’ writing. “If a writer is trying to tell a story, they put it into context with their own life,” Hayes said. “That advances our own ‘writerly’ interests and establishes a connection between people that might not feel connected.”

Another example she gave was how, in both of her books “The Tao of Raven” and “Blonde Indian,” there is a remembrance of ancestry. Hayes believes that’s what many people would like to preserve, and encourages writing about this topic. The June workshop was just one day. However, the workshops normally will be two days long. Since Hayes lives in Juneau, she sees the schedule for workshops in town being more flexible. Even those who attend the workshops but don’t want to participate directly with the project will be welcomed. Whatever writings come from “Container of Stories” will positively advance literary arts in Alaska. Hayes’ original plan for the project was to film participants reading their stories aloud and then sharing that film at an event that would be similar to Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation event for youths. After a talk she had with her son, she began to lean toward audio recording, which she thinks would be easier. “One of the many advantages of that would allow us to post some of the stories as we go along,” Hayes said. “ I know that I show my age by not really being that up on podcasts… but I’m looking into that, and if the concept is successful it can help the project live beyond this laureateship and continue to be gathering stories. I’m hoping this is something that lasts. I think one of the goals of the Alaska Laureate Project for each writer laureate is to give birth to something that continues.”

Hayes considered the Alaska Reach Program that was created from the efforts of previous laureate Frank Soos and how that program has the possibility of continuing. Hayes reports that she plans to go to Kotzebue next week and as she goes through Anchorage she is scheduled to go to Hiland Mountain Correctional Center and the Beans Café Soup Kitchen to see about facilitating sharing there. Although not precisely in the project, Hayes will also have a reading of her works at the Blue Hollomon Gallery in Anchorage where she plans to meet with a sculptor with whom she has interest in doing some collaborative work. This fall, Hayes will travel to Seattle for a reading at the Frye Museum where she is planning to meet and discuss collaboration ideas with a multimedia artist. Any community in Alaska that wishes to participate in Hayes’ project or is interested in having her for a public reading or craft talk is encouraged to fill out a request form that is available online at The organizers are asked to arrange lodging, workshop space, and local promotion and registration. Communities can also apply for Workshop Grants or Community Arts Development Grants from ASCA.

Hayes will continue teaching at the University of Alaska Southeast throughout the life of this project. “I hope that it leads to lots of good things and tells about Alaska’s stories — there are so many! Everyone has such a rich, singular, unique story. To be able to facilitate those voices and those stories is something I just really, really hope lives on,” Hayes said.

Writer’ snote: As a past University of Alaska Southeast student I was fortunate enough to have Hayes as my professor for multiple classes. At the end of our interview for this article she made it a point to check in on my writing habits; it was incredible to see that level of caring in a professor that goes beyond the job title. This project couldn’t have a better initiator or leader.

• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer in Juneau.

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