On September 25, 2017, the world lost a giant. Nora Ḵeixwnéi Dauenhauer, Lukaax̱.ádi and beloved Tlingit author, poet and scholar, passed away at the age of 90.
Nora, with her late husband Richard Dauenhauer, made significant contributions in preserving Tlingit oral traditions through their award-winning Tlingit Oral Literature Series. Nora’s first language was Tlingit, and she didn’t speak English until she was 8. As a fluent Tlingit speaker, she was instrumental in developing the Tlingit orthography and language books that students use today.
Nora and Dick worked in a field that often required many years of documenting, transcribing and translating to produce a single finished work, and yet they were prolific. Their Tlingit Oral Literature Series published through Sealaska Heritage included Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives; Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit; Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories; and Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America, The Battles of Sitka 1802 and 1804, the latter co-edited with the late Lydia Black. At the time of their death, they were close to finalizing the series’ fifth book on Raven stories.
Their scholarship was remarkable. Both Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit and Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America, The Battles of Sitka 1802 and 1804, won the prestigious American Book Award.
Their scholarship also extended to language revitalization. Not long ago, people worried the Tlingit language was dying because only elderly people spoke it. In recent years, a small group of young Tlingit language students emerged and some are now teaching the language in schools. That is in no small part due to Nora and Dick, as they produced landmark Tlingit language books that are still in use today. Their language books published through Sealaska Heritage included Beginning Tlingit; Lingít X’éináx Sá! Say it in Tlingit–A Tlingit Phrase Book; Sneaky Sounds–A Non Threatening Introduction to Tlingit Sounds and Spelling; and Tlingit Spelling Book–Aan Aduspelled X’úx’.
Their work paved the way for later important works, such as Dictionary of Tlingit; Beginning Tlingit Workbook; and, Lingít X’éináx Áx! Hear it in Tlingit–A Tlingit Mini Phrasebook and CD.
Nora won other accolades for her life’s work. In 2012, the Governor of Alaska named her Writer Laureate, making Nora and Richard, who earned the title in the 1980s, the only married couple in the state to both hold the award.
Nora also gave the gift of mentorship to so many young Tlingit language and history students.
“She really got people to examine the beauty of Tlingit,” University of Alaska Southeast Native language professor Lance Twitchell told the Juneau Empire. “She’s built the foundation (of Tlingit literature) … She was an incredible poet. She was an incredible intellectual.”
Gunalchéesh Nora for a life well lived. You and your life’s work have meant the world to us. As you cherished us, we cherished you. We will miss you terribly, but we are grateful for the work you did on this Earth.