Book Reviews

Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir by
Ernestine Hayes

University of Arizona Press

Blonde Indian is the memoir of Tlingit writer and story-teller Ernestine Hayes. Because of Hayes’ fair hair, her grandmother sang out to her "Blonde Indian, blonde Indian" as Hayes danced along. As a child, Hayes lived with her grandmother and grandfather, while her tubercular mother went in and out of the Public Health Hospital across the creek from their old house in Juneau. It was from her grandmother that Hayes received the knowledge of her identity and birthright as a Tlingit woman: "I am Eagle. I am of the Burnt House People Clan. I belong to Wolf House. I am a grandchild of the Gunaxteidi. I am a Kaagwaantann woman. My clan springs from the Sitka."

Hayes’ journey from out of this small native village at the edge of Juneau into the greater world is an odyssey of discovery, disillusionment and return. That she is an aboriginal woman, suffering from racial prejudice and discrimination, becomes clear through the narrative but in a way that is unobtrusive. The story unfolds naturally, narrated by a consciousness shaped over the years by experience and reflection. This is what makes Blonde Indian stand out among other similar narratives. Blonde Indian is a wise book, a story told by a true elder of the people.

Hayes uses third- and first-person narrative to tell her story; she also incorporates myth. For example, we get the myth of how Raven brought light into the world juxtaposed with Tom’s tale. Tom is a Tlingit boy taken away from his family to a residential school in Haines House. As Hayes enters into Tom’s head, we hear his voice justifying his predicament. "Haines House wasn’t too bad," he thinks, even though he is made to speak English, wear uncomfortable clothes, pray five times a day, and eat boiled vegetable gruel. Hayes shows the way her people made do and justified their treatment by the white people; at the same time, she does not flinch in portraying herself and her people as itinerant and troubled. Hayes grows up, leaves Alaska for California with her mother, falls in with the Jesus-movement people, has three children, and eventually becomes a street person, before she, like the salmon before her, returns to her own land.

In Alaska, Hayes discovers her true story-telling self when she takes a job on a cruise ship telling passengers about the landscape. She becomes intimately connected to the coves, channels, islands and bays she traverses. She witnesses, too, the other people of her land— killer whale, bear, seal. At the end of the book, even after we are given a description of the tragic end of Tom, who drowns in the sea, Hayes writes with moving conviction to her people, "Remember that the land is enspirited … The very land sees you. When you remember this, and feel this, and know this, you will want to hug the land. You will want to embrace it. And when that happens, you can be sure that the land feels the same way about you. The land loves you. She misses her children." After a long and varied life, Hayes articulates a sensibility and a way of apprehending the world that is truly indigenous. Therein lies the book’s greater wisdom and strength. Blonde Indian is truly a memoir like no other.  

Reviewed by Sally Ito