Hayes, Ernestine, Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir. University of Arizona Press. Hardbound. 175 pages. $32.95 Softbound $16.95.

I have one complaint about this book. The title. It sounds like a white person who wants to be Indian. That out of the way, the review will proceed.

If it weren’t for the beautiful writing, this threnody for a broken, dispirited, once-proud people would be unbearably sad.

The author grew up in Juneau and Douglas in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Her grandmother was her rock as her mother was in the hospital with tuberculosis and the family was very poor. The poignant story of a first-grader, ignored or ridiculed by the teacher and other children, who is finally invited to a white child’s birthday party and goes, taking a little box of her favorite cereal as a gift, will make you cry.

Her mother, whom Ernestine used to visit at the Juneau hospital, waving at her from the outside window, miraculously recovers and takes her daughter to San Francisco. Years later, after many moves and three children, the daughter returns home.

Here she remembers the Tlingit ways she had been taught as a child and works at learning more of the old ways and customs of her people. The stories of Raven, the independent women and the relationship with the material and non-material worlds are woven throughout the book like the cedar bark and mountain goat hair of a Chilkat blanket., and the results are just as beautiful.

The story of Young Tom, a boy taken from his home and sent to a boarding school “for his own good” is also told throughout the book. We can only hope this is a fictional account because the system breaks him. All too often, in real life, this tragedy did happen. There are few things more disastrous than goodhearted people tampering with cultures they don’t understand.

The racism in Juneau and much of Alaska at the time makes us cringe today. When people are taught for several generations that they are inferior they begin to believe it. Turning to alcohol to ease the pain just makes it that much worse. The downward spiral continues. Fortunately, just when the spiral into the black hole seemed inevitable, the world changed. Unlike many Native peoples, Tlingits were able to recall their rich heritage and build upon it.

Two lessons come from this utterly frank memoir. One is the strength of the extended family. The grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins shelter the weak so they can become strong. The other is Ernestine herself. She got a late start, but today is a university professor. She is also a gifted writer. Choosing almost at random, we have the following Tlingit view of the forest:

“On the surface of the forest floor are fresh needles and twigs. Just beneath this, fallen berries and cones. On the damp ground, rotting, cool, shaded, rich, solft almost-earth. Then the substance of seasons gone, the generations of rot: decayed totems, grandfather’s bones, spilled juices flavor and nurture and enliven, together with the rain. The deeper the darker the richer the more and more silent, more and more real/truth/is. In its essence, the light and the sky, the soft, clear drops of sweet heavenly nectar of the clouds: rain.”

She speaks of summer life at the Hawk Inlet cannery: “A row of one-room houses lined a wooden walkway; Native women, heads covered with wrapped scarves tied in flower-decorated knots at the tops of their shiny foreheads, called to one another, sweeping wooden stoops and stopping to tease and flirt and gossip. Smokehouses balanced along the beach added a delicate hint of alder to the salt water air and southeast breeze.”

Anyone who can describe waterfalls in winter as frozen“in midfall, becoming tall slick frozen moments of rushing stillness.”

Is it any surprise that the author is a professor of English?

Her story is the other lesson of this memoir. It shows what determination and hard work can accomplish when the world allows it.

A must read if you love the language.

D. L.,

Who still hates the title.