- The Tao of Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir by Ernestine Hayes
The Tao of Raven uses the same startling and effective structure as Ernestine Hayes's 2006 Blonde Indian, also subtitled An Alaskan Native Memoir. Both books weave fiction, autobiography, traditional [End Page 367] stories, and natural history together in a postmodern take on the complex realities of twentieth-and twenty-first-century Tlingit life. In Tao of Raven the weft is a single master story about how Raven brought light to the world. In a very long con, Raven disguises himself as a pine needle in order to impregnate a young woman, and when he has been reborn and grown into a beloved grandchild he finagles his grandfather out of the stars, the moon, and the sun, making the outside world a much brighter place, but leaving his family's house dark. Hayes explores the many tough lessons of that story, eventually even comparing herself as a grandmother to the old man who was selfishly keeping the daylight in a box. By exploring different facets of the myth, Hayes throws light on the emotional complexities of her own story, complicating what appears to be the happy ending of having achieved a college teaching job in her home town and written a highly praised first book. Death is always close, love is elusive, but somehow we forget and just go on living. The lessons of Spider and Raven are always available to be learned, as long as someone will remind us. Hayes accepts this responsibility as an elder and a Tlingit woman who has traveled a very long and circuitous path.
Once again, as in Blonde Indian, the fictional narrative threaded throughout the book of Old Tom and Young Tom, Mabel, Patricia, and Lucille provides a counterpoint to Hayes's own life. Most of the fictional moments, like most of the autobiographical scenes, take place later in the overall narrative arc than the scenes in Blonde Indian. But there is no neat chronological progression either within this book or from Blonde Indian to Tao of Raven. Earlier moments find their meaning in the context of later moments; vivid descriptions of immediate sensory details also evoke old memories. The old stories are just as true as they ever were, even if we are new hearers of those old stories. A person's own story is inseparable from the story of her place, from the other lives with whom she is surrounded, from (in Hayes's case) the forest, the rain, the salmon, the bear, Raven, spiders, grandmothers and grandchildren, bars and schools and cabins, history and culture, frybread and dryfish and giant clams.
Hayes is explicit in this book about the ravages of colonialism, [End Page 368] and she makes it clear that this review you're reading right now is an "appropriation," insofar as I (a white reviewer) present myself as any kind of "authorit[y] on Indigenous subjects": "In spite of their protestations of respect, their citations of personal relationships, their exhaustive studies, all such practices are colonial acts" (155–6). Can one perform a review without claiming any authority? Probably not. But, as Hayes says, it is "important for people in power to recognize Alaska Native intellectual authority" (158), and I hope this review does.
Hayes writes across cultural boundaries, as her syncretic title, The Tao of Raven, indicates. (Old Tom even performs a kind of Juneau version of the miracle of the wedding at Cana.) But even though any reader could find something valuable in this book, the first intended readers are clearly Indigenous people, Tlingits and others, who "can still take daily wisdom from the story of the man who was caught in a deathly grip," and "with patience … remember who [they] are" (93).