restricted access Blonde Indian (review)
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Blonde Indian. By Ernestine Hayes. University of Arizona Press, 2006. 172 pages, paper, $16.95.

Weaving traditional tales with life stories, finding the ways narrative learned and narrative lived shape her, Ernestine Hayes has written a meditative memoir entitled Blonde Indian. Some memoirs cast themselves as solely personal while others touch upon social issues to create a story of wider significance. Hayes has done more. By sharing native tales, the book not only tacitly comments upon Native Americans' experience with domination by [End Page 180] ` white people, but also illuminates how traditional stories bring other dimensions into people's lives, how these stories carry meaning across generations, and how a way of life based upon reverence for and deference to nature shaped an entire population. What it means to lose that (and begin to regain it) is made powerfully real in this book.

Four touchstones from the natural world anchor Hayes's narrative: the Retreating Glacier, the Emerging Forest, the Climax Forest, and the Bog. This structure reminds the reader how little the dominant culture honors the natural world. The stories centered on these places are almost so bare as to be vignettes, thus evoking other times and other ways of visioning the world. One effect of the spareness was to quiet me so that I could better absorb, and be enveloped by, the stories.

From the beginning, I reveled in the almost blunt manner of Hayes's voice. Her matter-of-fact tone carries a reporter's authority, a strong sense that "this is how it is." She spells out narrative facts from her own history without emotion: "My mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis not long after I was born." She relays traditional ideas in the same manner: "Bears were my cousins and the wind was my grandfather. I had no sisters or brothers and I had few friends, but wild plants grew on the hill beside our old house, and a creek led up the mountain behind me, and seaweed and crabs danced in the ocean channel at my feet." What Hayes felt is slipped in, with great simplicity and subtlety: "I never questioned that I belonged."

But Hayes doesn't stick solely to her personal story or traditional stories she encountered. She also weaves in generations' worth of others' experiences, revealing what happens when the connection to traditional ways of life in coastal towns is taken away. Some of the stories suggest that native and white ways can blend.Within Hayes's family, her Aunt Erm married a white man and belonged to both worlds, with a house, a car, a regular job. "She was the only one who always cooked in the manner of white people. The only one whose dinner plates matched." Aunt Erm simultaneously represented safety and mystery.

But other stories trace a tragic trajectory, the chain of events set into motion when generations of children are taken from their families and sent to white schools: a removal from tradition, poverty, and the continuing invasion of alcohol, which poisons people's ability to navigate obstacles or to maintain connections to cultural traditions and the natural world.

One such tale focuses on Tawnewaysh, a boy raised in the Indian Village section of Alaska's capital city, by a family that passed fishing skills from father to son. Around age ten, he was taken to a missionary school, where [End Page 181] he was expected to learn a trade, until adulthood. This shattered the family's traditions and eventually broke Tawnewaysh—now Tom. Hayes writes, "All the jobs they offered had to do with being a servant." Though Tom became a carpenter, he still wanted to fish. His father urged him to do as the white man said and join the army because the fishing and hunting were soon to disappear. "These white people kill something and then they love it," his father said. By the time Tom returned to his childhood village, his only real option was to fish on a white man's boat.

The life Hayes herself led had moments both of cultural blending and alienation. The book's title refers to the light hair Hayes had...