A Partnership of Language and Love: Reflecting on The Life of Dick Dauenhauer

Russian Orthodox funeral services are pending for former Alaska poet laureate Richard Dauenhauer who died on Tuesday.

Dauenhauer was known for many things, including poetry, translation and teaching. He was also the husband of Tlingit scholar and Alaska writer laureate Nora Marks Dauenhauer. For more than 40 years, they had a partnership of marriage and scholarship.

Dick and Nora Dauenhauer at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on April 24, 2011. (Photo by Brian Wallace)

Dick Dauenhauer was teaching folklore at Alaska Methodist University in the early 1970s when he met student Nora Marks.

Her friend Rosita Worl, now president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, was also a student.

“Her and Dick just hit it off. I think they had the same kind of sense of humor as I recall. And that was when their work started,” Worl says.

Dauenhauer and Marks married on November 28, 1973. She was 15 years older.

“They became quite a team. He had the technical knowledge of languages and stories and he was an educator, and she had all the traditional knowledge of Tlingit and it was a great combination,” Worl says.

Born in Syracuse, New York in 1942, Dick Dauenhauer had been a linguist for most of his life. He earned degrees in Slavic Languages and German. He translated poetry from Russian, Classical Greek, Swedish and Finnish. In 1969, he moved to Alaska to teach at Alaska Methodist University, now known as Alaska Pacific University.

Dauenhauer and Marks spent a few years at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 1983, they moved to Juneau. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they worked at Sealaska Heritage Foundation in Juneau, now known as Sealaska Heritage Institute.

They co-authored Tlingit language books and developed teaching materials. With the publication of Beginning Tlingit, Worl credits the couple for popularizing the language’s written form.

Nora and Dick Dauenhauer in Sitka in May. (Photo by Emily Forman/KCAW)

“What he and Nora did was bring the orthography to everyday use. They made that available to the students of the language,” Worl says.

They collected hundreds of recordings documenting Tlingit history, culture and language. They co-edited the four-volume series, “Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature“, and received American Book Awards for two volumes.

Juneau playwright and screenwriter Dave Hunsaker based his play “Battles of Fire and Water” on the tri-lingual volume, “The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804.”

“But really the book of ‘Tlingit Oratory’ was, to me, stunning. And by that time I had been adopted by the Tlingit. I had lived here in Juneau for 30 years and I felt like I knew a lot about the culture and when that book came out, I realized I didn’t know anything about the culture,” Hunsaker says.

Hunsaker says through translated speeches of Tlingit elders, the Dauenhauers revealed the complex and poetic oral tradition of the Tlingit culture.

“They recognized that these are not charming campfire Indian lore stories; these were world literature. And they treated them as world literature. And the way they rendered them and the way that they’ve been published so we can all now read them forever, they, by God, are world literature,” Hunsaker says.

Between their joint books and separate volumes of creative writing, Dick and Nora Dauenhauer have produced an abundant body of work. But their partnership held much more.

“It’s one of the great love affairs of any life that I know anything about. They never got past the hand holding stage,” Hunsaker says.

Hunsaker has been friends with the Dauenhauers for about 40 years. Throughout that time, he says they always acted like newlyweds.

“In spite of age difference, in spite of their incredibly different backgrounds, I just saw them be always fascinated with each other,” Hunsaker says.

At home a day after Dick Dauenhauer died, Juneau playwright Dave Hunsaker flips through his copy of “Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká/Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804.” (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

In 2005, Dick Dauenhauer was appointed President’s Professor of Alaska Native Languages and Culture at the University of Alaska Southeast. Chancellor John Pugh says the couple spearheaded the creation of the program.

“They just were really the heart and soul of the Alaska Native Language program,” Pugh says.

Pugh says up to that time, other UA faculty members had studied the language, but the Dauenhauers wanted to make sure it was spoken.

“That was the real change in terms of not being an academic language but trying to actually think about how we might have the speakers that we presently have and have them really be able to transfer the language to younger people who would carry the language forward and it could be a living language, continue as a living language,” Pugh says,

Assistant Professor Lance Twitchell now heads the Alaska Native Languages degree program at UAS. He says it’s been an honor to know and work with Dick and Nora, “and see how they operate just as poets and artists and linguists and anthropologists and just wonderful human beings. And I had the chance to tell both, ‘If I’m one-tenth of what you are, I’m pretty happy with the way my life went.’”

When Dick Dauenhauer passed away August 19 at the age of 72, he and Nora were nearing the end of a multi-decade project – a collection of Tlingit Raven stories.

Lisa Phu is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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