The Rasmuson Foundation named Juneau writer Ernestine Hayes its 2021 Distinguished Artist on Friday.
The achievement represents a lifetime of creative excellence and outstanding contribution to Alaska’s arts and culture.
Emotions ran high as people gathered on Zoom for a virtual ceremony. Hayes was selected by a panel of Alaska artists and art experts who help the foundation choose from a group of nominees each year.
Hayes held back tears as she talked about being marginalized as a young girl in territorial Alaska.
“This life pattern continued throughout my childhood, throughout my years in California and throughout my life after I returned,” Hayes said. “I came to accept exclusion as a feature of my life path.”
In her writing, Hayes explores the complexities of Indigenous identity. In one of her books, “Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir,” Hayes shares her personal journey of feeling alienated from Alaska Native and Euro-American communities.
She said the Rasmuson Foundation award overwhelmed her.
“You have given me a gift that fulfills the deep need that I’ve lived with since I was that marginalized little girl,” Hayes said. “I feel your acceptance. I feel accepted. Gunalchéesh! Gunalchéesh!”
The Distinguished Artist award includes a $40,000 prize, which Hayes said is much needed, as her home burned down three years ago. She said it’s been a long, challenging time full of unexpected costs and difficult decisions to repair the home.
“I’ve now gone all in with all my savings, all my retirement, all my energy and all the hope I could still muster,” Hayes said. “As you can imagine, I can’t describe the relief your generosity has brought to my worries.”
The celebration featured a performance by X’unei Lance Twitchell, a video by Pat Race and remarks from Joy Harjo, the first Native American United States Poet Laureate.
In the video, Hayes said any recognition she receives does not belong to her alone, but to Tlingit people.
Rasmuson Foundation board member, Adam Gibbons also spoke during the ceremony. He said Hayes is known for her modesty, but called her a “living, breathing, storytelling treasure.”
“We are grateful for your challenging us, for causing us to question our values, for pushing us to know and consider our stories and our history,” Gibbons said.
The Rasmuson Foundation will also be announcing the 2021 recipients for individual artist awards, project awards and fellowships in the next few months.