This year's Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist is Ernestine Saankaláxt' Hayes. The acclaimed author is former Alaska State Writer Laureate and resides in Juneau. (Courtesy Photo / Pat Race for Rasmuson Foundation)

Hayes receives prestigious Distinguished Artist honor

Acclaimed writer from Juneau receives Rasmuson Foundation award.

There may not have been a dry eye in the virtual house.

Emotions ran high, voices cracked and tears were shed last Friday during a virtual celebration of Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes, who is this year’s Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist.

“This gift, much-needed, so very much appreciated, means more than you can know,” said Hayes, who is a former Alaska State Writer Laureate and resides in Juneau, during the video conference.

Hayes, who is Tlingit, said the honor was especially meaningful in light of marginalization she had experienced since girlhood.

Hayes recalled growing up in the Juneau Indian Village during Alaska’s territory days in a video by Juneau’s Pat Race that played during the event. She said during the conference that as a girl she felt there was no place for her in Juneau. Her memoir “Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir,” which earned an American Book Award, explores feelings of exclusion from both Alaska Native and non-Indigenous communities.

[End of a chapter: Hayes reflects on her time as Alaska State Writer Laureate]

“This generosity, this recognition, this acceptance, this honor overwhelms me and has taught me that I am part of a community that embraces me,” said Hayes who is Tlingit. “You have given me a gift that fulfills the deep need that I have lived with since I was that marginalized girl. I feel accepted.”

Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes, Rasmuson Foundation’s 2021 Distinguished Artists, reacts to praise from U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo during a virtual celebration held last week. (Screenshot)

Ernestine Saankaláxt’ Hayes, Rasmuson Foundation’s 2021 Distinguished Artists, reacts to praise from U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo during a virtual celebration held last week. (Screenshot)

The annual award recognizes an Alaskan artist’s excellence across multiple decades. The recipient is chosen by a panel of Alaska artists and art experts.

In a pre-event interview, Rasmuson Foundation President and CEO Diane Kaplan said the decision to recognize Hayes was not a contentious one among panelists.

“I can tell you that it was a unanimous choice, and that’s almost never the case,” Kaplan said.

Hayes said the $40,000 prize that comes with the award comes at an especially critical time as she continues to put resources toward rebuilding a downtown family home that was badly damaged in a 2018 fire.

“I cannot describe the relief your generosity has brought to my worries,” Hayes said.

[Southeast artist wins major award]

During the short profile video, Hayes also touched on her experiences with homelessness and poverty in multiple states, her time away from Alaska, the inherent comfort of the familiar presence of Yadaa.at Kalé (Mount Juneau), her decision to attend college at age 50 and the relatively late start to her acclaimed literary career.

Kaplan said she wishes every kid in Alaska living a rough life or who has hard a hard time could be familiar with Hayes’ story and find inspiration in her perseverance and late-life artistic success. In a sense, Kaplan said, Hayes is Alaska’s own Grandma Moses.

“Ernestine has an amazing personal story of resilience of overcoming incredible challenges,” Kaplan said. “She is influential far beyond her community and far beyond her field.”

Kaplan wasn’t the only one with praise for Hayes’ work and Hayes the person.

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, the first Native American to hold that distinction; X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, who is a colleague of Hayes’ at University of Alaska Southeast, a writer, poet and advocate for Alaska Native language revitalization; and Adam Gibbons, Rasmuson Foundation board member; all spoke highly of Hayes and congratulated her on the award.

“I am so happy for you Ernestine Hayes, you’re a writer of incredible power and importance,” Twitchell said.

Gibbons said Hayes is a “living, breathing, story-telling” treasure.

At times during the ceremony, Hayes was visibly surprised and moved by what people had to say, and she appeared especially affected by the sentiments of Harjo, a member of Muscogee (Creek) Nation, who said she first met Hayes through “Blonde Indian” and wished she were able to congratulate Hayes in person.

“There is a wisdom that when I read or hear her, my ears open to the voices of the old people, and they will always find their way through race through false culture through Indian school, they find their way even if we think sometimes we’re not enough,” Harjo said. “Those voices, they’re wise. They know about the spirit of the people. They know who you are, and they speak through Ernestine.”

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Aug. 7

Here’s what to expect this week.

This photo shows a notice to quit form, which is a first step in the long process of evictions that the Alaska Court System hopes to make easier with a grant-supported Eviction Diversion Initiative. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Grant-supported program could mean fewer eviction cases in Alaska’s courts

Eviction diversion program seeks to provide resources before a case is filed.

Supporters of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wait for an opportunity to talk to her at her newly Juneau campaign headquarters Thursday evening at Kootznoowoo Plaza. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Murkowski opens up at Juneau HQ debut

Senator chats with supporters about U.S. vs. Belgium voting, moose chili and Project Veritas

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

U.S. Senate candidate Shoshana Gungurstein stars in a campaign sign within view of the Alaska governor’s mansion. Gungurstein, an independent, got exposure this week for being a Hollywood actress under a different last name after questions about her past went unanswered throughout the campaign. She is one of 19 candidates seeking to be among the four selected in next Tuesday’s primary to compete in the November general election. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Senate candidate sheds more light on background

Shoshana Gungurstein responds at length to recent report on past film career.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Drug arrest made in Skagway

Police say a suspicious package was intercepted.

This late-April photo shows a damaged sticker on a door at Thunder Mountain High School reminding people to social distance and wear masks inside the building. Masks will not be required in school buildings this year. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
No mandatory masks or COVID-19 tests for new school year

No mandatory masks or COVID-19 tests for new school year

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Friday Aug. 12, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

From left, Kelsey Dean, watershed scientist with the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, and Kaagwaan Eesh Manuel Rose-Bell of Keex’ Kwáan watch as crew members set up tools to drag a log into place. Healthy salmon habitat requires woody debris, typically provided by falling branches and trees, which helps create deep salmon pools and varied stream structure. (Courtesy Photos / Mary Catharine Martin)
 
The SalmonState: Bringing the sockeye home

Klawock Indigenous Stewards and partners are working to a once prolific sockeye salmon run.

Most Read