RIP Richard Dauenhauer.

A nice LA Times obit by Jill Leovy of Richard Dauenhauer, “a linguist, anthropologist, playwright and former Alaska poet laureate who died Tuesday of cancer in Juneau, Alaska”:

Dauenhauer, 72, made recording, transcribing and advocating for the Tlingit language his life’s work. He trained a cadre of teachers and translators to continue his efforts. He sought not just to revive the fast-disappearing tongue, largely relegated to the thoughts of a few surviving tribal elders, but to win acceptance for its use.

Alaskans can now elect to study Tlingit from kindergarten through college and read translated works of Tlingit oratory. “Everyone who is currently teaching Tlingit has been taught by Richard Dauenhauer,” said Lance Twitchell, assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages at University of Alaska Southeast who is one of Dauenhauer’s former students.
. . .
Dauenhauer sought to dispel the shame and fear once inflicted on native speakers. He gave Tlingit oral history the status of literature, “the same as the highest forms of English literature,” Twitchell said. And his poetry celebrated literary possibilities of what had been exclusively oral traditions.
. . .
A bearded poet and “teacher at heart,” Dauenhauer was still attending to his scholarly duties weeks before he died, Twitchell said. He claimed reading proficiency in a dozen languages and also worked to preserve Haida and Tsimshian, also indigenous Alaska languages.

Dauenhauer argued that translation belonged more to creative writing than scholarship. He was interested in the way culture embeds itself in the mechanics of language. He sought to avoid dumbing things down — to avoid the common error of representing indigenous folklore as children’s tales, for instance. His “Beginning Tlingit” textbook is still used at the university.

His specialty was “oral literature,” Worl said. “That sounds like a contradiction. He made it not a contradiction.”

That’s my kind of scholar. (Thanks for the link, Eric!)


  1. marie-lucie says

    A sad loss.

    The obit does not mention that the “few surviving tribal elders” included his wife, Nora, his close collaborator.

  2. A life well spent.

  3. J. W. Brewer says is an obit from a religious source focusing on that angle of his life with a few of his religious poems included. (I believe Tlingit was the last of the major indigenous languages the Russian missionaries to Alaska worked on, after first making progress with Aleut and Yupik.)

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