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  • Nora Marks Dauenhauer's Life Woven with Song
  • Gladys Cardiff (bio)

Our struggle at the moment is to continue to survive and work toward a time when we can replace the need for being preoccupied with survival with a more responsible and peaceful way of living within communities and with the ever-changing landscape that will ever be our only home.

Robert Allen Warrior, Tribal Secrets

Formulated within the structural coherence of an anthology, Life Woven with Song collects Nora Dauenhauer's published work and new writing under one cover. SAIL's readership will be most acquainted with Dauenhauer's fostering of Tlingit oral traditions in the multivolume series Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature, an ongoing project produced in collaboration with her husband, Richard. Life Woven with Song affords readers the opportunity of hearing Dauenhauer render individualized, contemporary Tlingit experience by means of a wide range of enunciative styles and a variety of forms, including memoir, essay, fiction, and poetry. In the final section of this collection, she departs from the autobiographical with a set of Raven plays. Dauenhauer's aim is that the separate pieces will "come together for readers to form a larger cultural and literary landscape" of the Tlingit of southeastern Alaska (xii).

This is a rich mix in a small container. In addition to the sectioning by genre, this highly formulated book also includes a preface, photographs, an introduction to the plays, a glossary, and a fact sheet about the author. The organizational devices and the attention to [End Page 65] contextualizing Tlingit identity structure Life Woven with Song as a user-friendly book for a mainstream readership interested in contemporary tribal lifeways. Overall, Dauenhauer's primary obsession is the enduring reciprocity between the Tlingit people and the specific landscape that is their home: place engenders identity, rights and responsibility to the land; human relation in the physical world constitutes a cosmic kinship relationship. A key feature of Life resides in the pleasure Dauenhauer takes in acts of fluidity and fluency within multiple discourses which range from warm and personable conversational diction, peppered with idioms and allusions to popular culture, to the scholarly discursiveness she employs when delivering conceptual and methodological information.

One gets to know Dauenhauer best through her voice. Speaking styles and linguistic playfulness serve not only as features of Dauen-hauer's temperament and love of language, but also as markers invoking a linguistic drama for voice. Navigating Dauenhauer's collection rewards sensitivity to the verbal play of language, to nuance, and the implications of what is said and what isn't. On one hand, Dauenhauer's presentation is invitational. She describes, explains, and anticipates questions and difficulties the reader may encounter. Notably, in a book which is mostly autobiographical, she also marshals the readers' ingress into personal experience and the conceptual complexities of Tlingit belief systems. The reticence to delve deeply and elaborate from within emotional, psychological, and spiritual intimacies, is a feature of Dauenhauer's poetry as well as her prose. In the presentation of the Raven plays, where the cathexis of purpose, form, and voice reverberates most actively, there are undercurrents, eddies of indirection, and points of opacity. This set of short comic pieces is the site most charged with the tensions between conservation and innovation, and is best read in conjunction with Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature.

The Prose: Memory as Regeneration

The preface and the initial prose piece "Some Slices of Salmon" establish the cultural and economic significance of salmon, thereby linking the salmon cycle of return; acts of memory—"a gift that keeps giving;" [End Page 66] identity—Dauenhauer is Lukaax.adi' (Sockeye Clan); and a specific geography—the range of her family's fishing grounds. Furthering the theme of return, Dauenhauer employs the device of juxtaposition of prose pieces for the purposes of repetition and reconfiguration. For example, following the introductory memoir of subsistence fishing expressed from Dauenhauer's first person viewpoint as a child, is the short story "Egg Boat," a fictive story about Keixwnei (Dauenhauer's Tlingit name), fishing the North Pacific alone for the first time. Like the memoir, the short story is told, again, from a child's perspective, but this time...


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pp. 65-73
Launched on MUSE
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