Documentary ‘Language Warriors’ Celebrates the life of Tlingit Scholar Nora Dauenhauer Who Walked into the Forest Last Week by Frank HopperTweet
“Does death take pity on us too
my brothers’ children,
All my fathers.
It doesn’t take pity on us either,
this thing that happens.
[response: That’s how it is.]”
Nora Marks Dauenhauer, the beloved Tlingit elder, scholar, linguist and poet who passed away peacefully in Juneau last week at age 90, tape recorded these words during a 1968 memorial service for her late uncle Jim Marks. Originally spoken in Tlingit by Jessie Dalton, a T’akdeintaan clan mother, during the Widow’s Cry portion of the memorial, or koo.éex’, the words were part of a beautiful keynote speech intended to remove sorrow and grief. Later, Nora carefully wrote down the entire speech in Tlingit and then translated it into English so future generations can study and learn from this elegant example of Tlingit oratory. Now, nearly 50 years after they were spoken, these opening words apply to her as well.
I first heard of Nora when my cousin Barbara recommended I read a book by her and her husband Richard to learn more about my Tlingit heritage. Barbara wrote the title on a scrap of paper and handed it to me like a doctor prescribing medicine, Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer. With over 500 pages of examples and analysis, the book was big and thick and I felt intimidated by it. Its sheer weight seemed so imposing that whenever I tried to read it, I’d soon become discouraged and give up. It was clearly a college-level textbook, and I hated all textbooks.
So it was quite a surprise years later when I saw photographs of Nora in news articles and discovered she was a tiny grandmother who smiled like a playful Tlingit elf. As I prepared to write this tribute, I decided to search YouTube to see if I could find any video footage of her. That’s when I discovered the beautiful documentary “Haa Yoo X’atángi Káx Kulagaawú Language Warriors: The Life and Work of Nora and Richard Dauenhauer” shot in 2014 by University of Alaska Southeast Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages, X’unei Lance Twitchell.
This feature-length documentary, produced with a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum, includes extensive interviews with Nora and her late husband Richard Dauenhauer, a retired UAS professor and author specializing in oral literary traditions, in particular that of the Tlingit of southeast Alaska.
I couldn’t stop smiling as I watched the video. What I found most striking was just how ordinary Nora seemed. I knew she was a giant, a talented anthropologist who was raised speaking only Tlingit and because of that played a pivotal role in preserving the tradition of Tlingit Oral Literature.
But that academic powerhouse and legendary pioneer in the study of Tlingit oratory could have easily been one of my aunties.
“You felt like you were home when you were around them,” X’unei told me. “They had built this community of people interested in the language. Once I encountered them I felt like that was where I belonged.”
Behind the Scenes
Not long after being awarded the grant to make the documentary, X’unei received some devastating news. Richard, Nora’s husband, was diagnosed with cancer. X’unei wasn’t sure what to do. No one knew how much longer Richard had before the cancer took him. X’unei videoed only one interview with Nora and Richard together before Richard passed away.
Nora and Richard’s deep love for each other comes out in their interview when Nora begins crying. A memory has overwhelmed her and she covers her mouth, embarrassed at her display of emotion. She apologizes. Richard tells her it’s okay, his eyes filled with affection. It’s a moving private moment.
The memory is of the time she read a story called, “Ghost of Courageous Adventurer” by the Tlingit scholar Louis Shotridge. The story is told in English, but in the style of Tlingit Oratory. Nora, who didn’t speak English until she was eight years old, was familiar with the rhythms and style of Tlingit oratory, having heard it many times at clan gatherings. But to read English words used in that same style opened a whole new vista of understanding for her.
“It was the kind of language that I grew up with,” she says in the video. “I could read it. It was wonderful to read. It was like it was sent to me so I could read it. I don’t know anybody else who could read it.”
Having a fluent knowledge of both Tlingit and English, she saw what most could not: her people’s dying oral tradition could be captured in written form. It was a life-changing discovery.
Remembering that moment brought tears to Nora’s eyes. Richard’s comforting words showed he understood how important it was to her in a way perhaps no one else could. Additionally, after X’unei told me about Richard’s illness and impending death that loomed over the recording of the interview, Nora’s tears took on added poignancy.
“It’s Your Turn”
After Richard’s passing, X’unei decided to continue working with Nora, recording her thoughts for the documentary. Also, he and several other linguists collaborated with Nora to edit a collection of stories about the trickster Raven, told by many different Tlingit elders. X’unei said he hopes this collection will be published next year, the last book to have Nora and Richard’s names on the cover. It was during work on this final book that Nora began preparing X’unei for her own passing.
“When we were translating I’d ask, ‘Okay, what’s that mean?’ And she’d say, ‘It’s your turn.'”
The meaning was clear. Nora had blazed a trail. Now it was his turn.
“You can’t do what they did,” X’unei told me. “But you can do a little part and you can try to imitate what they were doing. There are a whole group of us now. It’s probably going to take ten of us to do what the two of them did.”
The big, intimidating book I’d once been discouraged by now seems more like a precious jewel set in a necklace of other jewels, a life devoted to saving a beautiful literary tradition comparable to that of the ancient Greeks or the Elizabethans, a tradition that might have been completely lost had it not been for a tiny, soft-spoken Tlingit grandma.