Ernestine Hayes, a Tlingit author and former Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2016-2018, gives a lecture on Juneau’s Indian Village at the Walter Soboleff Center on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. The lecture is sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Ernestine Hayes, a Tlingit author and former Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2016-2018, gives a lecture on Juneau’s Indian Village at the Walter Soboleff Center on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. The lecture is sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

‘We’re still here’: Ernestine Hayes shares Indian Village memories, hopes for the future

Alaska writer laureate recalls childhood during lecture

Ernestine Hayes grew up listening to the stories her grandmother told her. Stories that said the Taku Winds that blew over their wooden home were the voice of her grandfather telling a young Hayes not to come out and play on the days he spoke too loudly. Stories that bears were her cousins and spiders were friends that carried their own tales.

Hayes spent her youth in the Juneau Indian Village, an area of downtown Juneau centered around what is now called Village Street. But it wasn’t always that way. The practice of having homes face a street, indeed even having homes for individual people or families were customs forced upon indigenous peoples by a colonial government, Hayes said.

These memories and their legacy were the subject of Hayes’ lecture at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Building Monday, “Juneau Indian Village: Pilings, Pavement and Politics.” The lecture is part of a series this month for Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month.

“The story of the Juneau Indian Village functions as metaphor for the Alaska Native itself,” Hayes told the packed clan house at SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building in downtown Juneau. “This new custom of facing the street turned people away from the sea, another emblem of the lived experience of colonization.”

Auk Indian Village is seen circa 1900-1910 in this photo. (Courtesy photo | Alaska State Library Digital Archives)

Auk Indian Village is seen circa 1900-1910 in this photo. (Courtesy photo | Alaska State Library Digital Archives)

Hayes recalled seeing the changes to her culture take place over the years and how those changes were forced upon the Tlingit people by outside forces. Clothing, hairstyles and the English language were all mandates of the American government on indigenous people across the United States.

The Dawes Act of 1887 broke up the communal holding of native lands and appropriated it to individuals, ending centuries of tradition and forcing a rejection of “uncivilized” culture, Hayes said.

“The Alaska Legislature devised a way where Alaska Native people could become American citizens by rejecting Alaska Native values,” Hayes said. “One of the residents taking advantage of that program included my grandfather. New laws made it impossible to catch and dry fish or to shoot deer.”

[Willoughby District considers a name change]

But the culture persisted, Hayes said, and even though the style of home was different, its kitchen was still the center of family life. Even as clothing styles and language changed, cultural identity could not be erased.

“The arc of the decolonized universe is long,” Hayes said, borrowing a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr. “But it bends toward justice.”

Hayes said that indigenous identity, sovereignty, education and economic power are expanding. She credited the leadership of Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska for working to expand indigenous presence in the community.

“The future of the Juneau Indian Village depends on many variables,” Hayes said. “But our impetus has only strengthened.”

Following the lecture, other Alaska Natives shared their personal memories of village life.

“I can remember the village where the State Office Building currently sits, all the homes along the hill there,” said Mary Marks, who spoke about learning to heal cultural wounds. “Even though our culture has new meaning to it, it’s a different kind of culture that we’re still learning how to use. I still grab from the era of memory of how things were done, it still allows me that chance to begin that healing.”

Frances Houston, spokesperson for the Aak’w Kwaan, said she too remembered the stories her mother and grandmother told her.

“Gunalchéesh,” Houston said. “thank you for everything that you shared, it was everything that I remember from my mother and grandmother.”

But while indigenous authority has been expanded, and Native peoples have asserted themselves, the practice of American colonization hasn’t stopped, Hayes said in an interview with the Empire following the lecture.

Ernestine Hayes, a Tlingit author and former Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2016-2018, gives a lecture on Juneau’s Indian Village at the Walter Soboleff Center on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. The lecture is sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Ernestine Hayes, a Tlingit author and former Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2016-2018, gives a lecture on Juneau’s Indian Village at the Walter Soboleff Center on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. The lecture is sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

“One of the practices of American colonization is to make sure that Native people, indigenous people, the original people remain in the past,” Hayes said. “You’ll see, even in textbooks and in a lot of people’s conversation, comments such as, ‘the Native people lived in this area, the Native people fished in this area.” She emphasized the use of the past tense.

“Well,” Hayes said, “we’re still here.”

While there is recognition of indigenous peoples, Hayes said, there isn’t always the recognition of what she called indigenous intellectual authority.

“It’s common practice to say, ‘Native people have so much wisdom,’ you hear that all the time, that indigenous people are so wise,” Hayes said. “Indigenous people have intellectual capacity and ability that in many cases surpasses Western colonial knowledge and intellectual ability.”

Hayes said that recognition of indigenous intellectual authority should extend beyond just indigenous matters to other areas of social life such as politics and the environment.

“If that had been the practice for a few years then maybe we wouldn’t be where we are today in this nation,” Hayes said. “So there.”


• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.


‘We’re still here’: Ernestine Hayes shares Indian Village memories, hopes for the future

More in News

Even as coronavirus numbers are going down and vaccines are being distributed, pandemic-related facilities like the testing site at Juneau International Airport, seen here in this Oct. 12 file photo, are scheduled to remain for some time, according to city health officials. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)
Vaccines are coming, but pandemic facilities will remain

Testing sites and other COVID-19 operations will continue, officials say, but infections are trending down.

After violent protesters loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol today, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, left, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., join other senators as they return to the House chamber to continue the joint session of the House and Senate and count the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Murkowski on impeachment: ‘I will listen carefully’ to both sides

As for timing, the senator said, “our priority this week must be to ensure safety in Washington, D.C.”

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021

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

Juneau City Hall. The City and Borough of Juneau has distributed nearly $5 million in household and individual assistance grants since October. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
All housing and most personal assistance grants processed

About $5 million in aid is flowing to households and individuals in Juneau.

A child plays at Capital School Park. The park is in line for a remodel that will fix the crumbling retaining wall, visible in the background. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)
A new life is in store for Capital School Park

Public input is helping craft a vision for the park’s voter-approved facelift.

Expected heavy snow and high winds Thursday evening prompted Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to issue a warning of increased avalanche hazard along Thane Road. (File photo)
Avalanche risk increasing along Thane Road

Be careful and plan for the possibility of an extended road closure.

White House, tribes joined to deliver Alaska Native vaccines

The initiative has treated Indigenous tribes as sovereign governments and set aside special vaccine shipments.

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Friday, Jan. 8

The most recent state and local numbers.

Federal report says pandemic hit seafood industry hard

Catch brought to the docks fell 29% over the course of the first seven months of the year.

Most Read