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.

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