Skip to main content
A person with short gray hair smiles warmly, their gaze off camera. They are wearing a flower-patterned vest, earrings, and a necklace and standing in front of a grassy backdrop.

Photo by Emily Wall.


Ernestine Shaankaláxt’ Hayes

She // Her // Hers, They // Them // Theirs


Juneau, Alaska

I learned I am part of a community of breadth, depth, and spirit. That revelation was surprising to me because I had never before felt I was a meaningful part of a community.”

Ernestine Shaankaláxt' Hayes belongs to the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Tlingit nation. Hayes was born in Juneau, Alaska at the end of the Second World War when Alaska was still a territory. At the age of fifteen, she and her mother moved to California, where she stayed for twenty-five years, although not a day went by that she didn’t long for home. Finally, when she turned 40, her children grown or living with their father, she promised herself she would go home or she would die with her thoughts facing north. It took her eight months to make it to Alaska, living in her car, standing in food lines, and sleeping in shelters. It took another two years to make it all the way back home to Juneau, and now she loves it more than if she'd never left.

She had never finished high school, but at the age of fifty she enrolled as a freshman in college, receiving an MFA in 2003. Her first book, Blonde Indian, an Alaska Native Memoir published in 2006, is based on her master's thesis, Lingít Aaní. She is the 2021 Rasmuson Distinguished Artist, and she served as Alaska’s Writer Laureate from 2016 to 2018. Professor of English, Emerita from the University of Alaska Southeast, she is mother of three, grandmother of four, and great-grandmother of three. Hayes lives in her hometown of Juneau, not far from the Juneau Indian Village where she was born and raised.

Donor -This award was generously supported by the Rasmuson Foundation.

This artist page was last updated on: 07.08.2024


Each summer, our family gladly returned to a worn trail on a tall mountain to find our favorite berries. We licked from our hands the juicy tart hope of baskets full of ripened life. Along the trail in awakened light and awakening shadows, we boasted and teased and called out our various dreams. We measured our distance from one another by those calls: sons, daughters, eager grandchildren. And melancholy elders, whose rheumy eyes reflected images of always-one-more child running up a trail to test precocious summer berries, always-one-more almost-woman drawn forward by the unyielding embrace of a future walking toward her on two legs.

And as I followed that man who walked on four legs, that bear who walked on two, I saw that what I had thought a mountain was only a log, and what I thought logs were no more than cedar embers glowing in bundled fire. We greeted yesterday’s smokehouses now watched by haunted rivers, we chased nested godwits, we followed trails created in the image of runaway boys. Backs bent, we scrambled across lowbush willow and walked along riverbed and shore, through every timbered edge of alpine tundra. I began to love the twilight. I already loved the man.

I counted the changes come over me. I admired my forelimb claws. Newly uncovered beetle grub delighted me. Soft flesh. Thick, wormy savor. Who knows how many steps we took before we reached his village, who knows how long we stayed. After a while we left. We found a hermit’s mountain and made our home at the frayed hem of time, at a place between worlds where now-thin forest meets waiting, snow-covered rock.

Bear Woman