- Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir
With her opening words, Ernestine Hayes informs readers that she will tell her story in a fashion that honors her ancestors and Tlingit oral tradition. She begins in her native language—the book’s first printed words are “haa shagoon” (“our ancestors”)—and gives her Tlingit name, Saankaláxt, before her “white man name.” She proceeds to recount her ancestry, establishing both her right to speak as a Tlingit woman and her connection to the land: “We belong to Lingít Aaní” (n. pag.). It is a traditional beginning to what has become, sadly, a traditional story: Native families damaged by assimilationist policies and alcohol abuse. Yet Hayes offers a hopeful narrative of returning home to the land that will always embrace its people. [End Page 78]
The daughter of a Lingít woman and a white man, Hayes grew up in the Indian Village in Juneau, Alaska, before moving with her mother to California. She spent her earliest years being raised by her grandmother and her aunt while her mother was treated for tuberculosis. Hayes, who began abusing alcohol as a teenager, describes a life of hardship that includes relationships with abusive men, estrangement from her children, and extended periods of homelessness. Through it all, the idea of returning to Alaska sustains her. The land itself, consistently represented not only as the singular shaping force of her culture but also as part of her family, signifies redemption for Hayes.
Hayes divides her memoir into four sections, each introduced by a traditional story; every section includes not only details of Hayes’s life but also origin stories, clan histories, and the histories of her family and other members of the Indian community. She moves from autobiography to Raven stories to stories of the land with little transition, reminding readers that, for her, there should be no disconnection among these aspects of life. These shifts work best when Hayes allows readers to form connections, as when she moves from sharing troubled parent-child relationships to stories of salmon spawning and bears feasting before hibernation; the reader understands that while the perfection of the earth’s cycle highlights the tragedy of failed elders in Juneau’s Indian Village, Hayes takes hope from nature’s cyclical pattern that conditions for herself and her people will improve. The text is less engaging when Hayes overtly “reads” for us, as when she warns that Tlingit children in the womb are just as likely to hear “the crooning of a drunken woman” or the “angry shouts of a jealous husband” as songs that tell “the history of the clan and the stories of her people” and then states in the next line, “These are the scars with which Raven is now born” (19).
The repetitions within the text firmly locate Hayes in the oral tradition, as do her frequent calls to the reader, “Let us look to Lingít Aaní” (58), and markers of storytelling practices, “This is our story” (74). Even readers familiar with strategies for reproducing oral storytelling may at first be disconcerted by Hayes’s [End Page 79] frequent and lengthy word-for-word repetitions. There is also an entire storyline, featuring Old Tom and his family, that seems disconnected from Hayes’s own story, although one can read these sections anthropologically as an effort to include male experiences and to show the cyclical nature of the damage affecting Hayes’s community. There are also isolated passages that seem to float in the text with no chronological grounding and key points that lack context or explanation, most notably commentary on Hayes’s extended homelessness. And while the title prepares readers for an examination of Hayes’s mixed-blood ancestry, other than an opening sequence in which her grandmother sings “blonde Indian” to her and brief remarks regarding her father, Hayes does not engage this topic. Still, Hayes’s easy movements from her own history to traditional stories hold the text together as a compelling...