Following the path of the mythical Raven

Alaska’s writer laureate crosses boundaries and rediscovers home.

 

“Raven Steals the Light,” an Indigenous tale beloved across the Pacific Northwest, describes what may be the legendary trickster’s finest hour. As author Ernestine Hayes, a member of the Tlingit Tribe, tells it, the story begins “in an unbrightened world, (where) light does not reveal itself. It must be stolen.” The darkness hindered life for ordinary human beings, and only Raven was bold enough to seek the light’s source and set it free. Reborn as a feisty, cunning child, he won over his reclusive grandfather, who grudgingly allowed him to open the precious bentwood boxes holding the moon, stars and sun. Raven’s ensuing theft illuminated the earth. The tale is especially vital to the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska, but Hayes, a professor and writer who was recently named state writer laureate for 2016-2018, readily admits, “I never really understood the story … until I became a grandmother myself. Then I understood why Raven’s grandfather gave him the Box of Daylight when he fussed for it.”

Tlingit art depicting Raven stealing the sun.
Israel Shotridge

Hayes became intrigued by the story when she worked as a summer naturalist for the Alaska State Ferry, one of the first jobs she took after 25 years away from her home in Juneau. Caught between an eroding Tlingit culture and her own teenage recklessness, the 16-year-old Hayes and her mother had tried to build a new life in the Lower 48. Later on, after she returned to the North, Hayes began to see Raven’s transformations as a way to brighten the dark spots of her own past. Entering her 50s, Hayes went on to complete a graduate degree from University of Alaska, producing the manuscript that became Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir. A winner of the 2007 American Book Award, this fiercely honest memoir confronted the alcoholism, poverty and injustice that plagued Hayes’ early years. Building on the search for belonging, family and home that led her back to Juneau, Hayes’ new sequel, The Tao of Raven, goes a step further, asking how she might bring healing and light to her world of wounds.

As with Blonde Indian, Hayes blurs the boundaries of genre in The Tao of Raven, which braids sharp grandmotherly meditations and gripping personal history into the fictional storyline of another troubled, typical family. Alternating the reality of her own struggles with those of her fictional characters, Hayes takes a radically compassionate approach, entering the lives of others to see how “the trickster is always at work.”

Hayes finds the trickster at work wherever we allow deep feeling, including the “ordinary rebellion, commonplace trauma, and mundane heartbreak that have continued to mark (her) generations.” In one particularly vivid memory, the young Hayes went to the Juneau town dock with classmates, to try out a new fishing pole. She hoped that “along with their friendship might come comfort, might come knowledge, might come understanding.” But instead, they ran into an Indian — Hayes’ own grandfather — who was drunk and swaggering with pride over a fresh-caught halibut strung from his fist. “The other children,” she writes, “their derision ill-concealed by poor attempts to cover their snorts of laughter, took hesitant steps backward as my grandfather neared. Finally we all stood too close to one another. … The white children I dared to imagine as my friends staging their retreat behind me, ready to dash for the safety of another world, my grandfather in front of me, offering a whiskered smile, saluting me with the heavy flatfish he proudly held up for my regard and admiration, I at the torn seam of two worlds.”

For Hayes, storytelling becomes a tool to overcome the gaps that keep us from what we love. Given an education that denied her own Native history, Hayes had to become as curious and creative as Raven to find her way — her tao — back into Tlingit culture. Re-imagination becomes her path to re-inhabitation. “We may never truly know,” she writes, “until perhaps the knowledge is given to an artist, to a totem carver, to a weaver, to a dagger maker, to a painter, to a storyteller, and we read from that craftsperson’s vision.”

Hayes never denies her journey’s present complexities, hard as it is to face the shame and fear that kept her away from her homeland for so long. But with all their transformations, the patience and grace of her nuanced truths — both fact and fiction — transcend enduring prejudice. In The Tao of Raven, her prose is as insistent as it is lyrical, as she urges readers to “take Raven,” and find hope in some “scrap of earth.” That is all we ever have, really: our pasts to hold our stories, and our places to guide our dreams. 

The Tao of Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir
Ernestine Hayes
176 pages, hardcover: $26.95.
University of Washington Press, 2016.

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