Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_SHI wins federal grant to process, make available archives from Dauenhauer estate

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Part of collection to be digitized, posted online

Aug. 31, 2020

(About Richard and Nora Dauenhauer)

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has won a federal grant to process and make available a large archives left by the late scholars Richard Xwaayeenák̲ and Nora Ḵeixwnéi Dauenhauer, who played a critical role in documenting Tlingit oral traditions and producing the Tlingit language materials students use today.  

The $150,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services will allow SHI to process the entire Dauenhauer Literary Estate, which was donated to the institute in 2020. The collection includes more than 275 linear feet of documents, three boxes of journals, 18 boxes of media and 89 boxes of books, which will be processed over two years and made available to the public.

Approximately 2,700 documents from the collection will be digitized and put online under the scope of the grant.

The Dauenhauers were some of the most beloved and important scholars of Tlingit history and oral traditions, and they were instrumental in developing the learning materials used by language students, said SHI President Rosita Worl.

“She was a fluent Tlingit speaker, and he a linguist—both of them scholars and poets. Together, they made a formidable team, documenting, recording, transcribing and translating our oral histories and language,” Worl said. “Because of them, our present and future generations will learn about their history and language through the Dauenhauers’ numerous books and contributions.”

“With this project, the Dauenhauers will teach us even more through the archives they left behind.”

The Dauenhauer Literary Estate will provide a holistic view of the Dauenhauers’ intellectual pursuits, which extended beyond the Tlingit language and oral literature to include their interests in poetry, theology, folklore and other languages and oral traditions — which were pivotal elements that made their work with Tlingit oral literature and pedagogy so valuable.

The collection will also provide a view of the developments and changes in the Dauenhauers’ approach to Tlingit language, history and oral literature over the course of their careers, and it is expected to illuminate important areas for future research and scholarship.

The Dauenhauers’ approach to research is the model for how to think, how to behave, how to do research with respect and honesty, wrote Matthew Spellberg, Ph.D., a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows in a letter of support for the project.

“Their archive might be thought of as a huge template for carrying out the paradigm-shifting work they pioneered,” said Spellberg, who is familiar with the content of the collection. “It has the potential to profoundly change Native American Studies for the better and many other fields that involve community scholarship and community collaboration.”

As part of the grant application process, SHI surveyed Tlingit language speakers and learners, asking them to anonymously reflect on the importance of the Dauenhauers’ work and legacy.

“They were geniuses, the both of them. Their work needs to be recognized on the world scale that it merits, and we're not even close to that yet,” wrote one respondent, who thought their papers would eventually be recognized as one of the most important archives of Northwest Coast scholarship.

“They produced, in my opinion, some of the finest scholarship on Native American oral tradition and language in existence, and they have blazed the path for all subsequent study of Tlingit and oral traditions from around North America and the world,” wrote another. “Their papers will be a treasure to scholars from all over, as well as for Tlingit language learners and anyone interested in Tlingit culture.” 

About Richard and Nora Dauenhauer

Nora Marks Dauenhauer was a Tlingit transcriber, translator, author and poet born on May 8, 1927. Nora’s first language was Tlingit and she did not speak English until she was eight years old. Like her mother, Nora was a member of the Raven moiety, L’ukaax̱.ádi clan and the Shaka Hít or Canoe Prow House.

Nora was asked to teach Tlingit at the Juneau-Douglas High School in 1969, after which time she moved to Anchorage to attend college, where she met Richard Dauenhauer. Nora had previously started working on a Tlingit oratory project, transcribing and translating the speeches delivered at her father’s potlatch in Hoonah. She showed her work to Richard, who was an instructor of comparative literature at the university she was attending. Richard saw that Tlingit oratory was the equivalent of the best oral literature found in Homer and other ancient and revered literary traditions. Thus was formed Nora and Richard’s vibrant partnership, championing Tlingit oral literature and breaking ground with highly significant transcriptions and translations of Tlingit oratory from older generations of speakers trained in this tradition.

Nora earned an anthropology degree and married Richard in the 1970s. Like Nora, Richard Dauenhauer was also a poet, author and Tlingit transcriber and translator. He earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature with a dissertation titled Text and Context of Tlingit Oral Tradition. In 2012, Alaska’s Governor named Nora as Alaska’s Poet Laureate, making the Dauenhauers the only married couple to both hold the distinction (Richard was Alaska’s Poet Laureate in the 1980s).

Nora and Richard were hired by SHI during the 1980s and 1990s to continue their work transcribing and translating Tlingit oral narratives, during which time they produced SHI’s highly regarded Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature Series: Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives (1987); Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (1990), winner of the 1991 American Book Award; and Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories (1994). In 2008, they produced volume four of the series—Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America, The Battles of Sitka 1802 and 1804, which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the 2009 Alaska Library Association’s Alaskana Book of the Year Award. The Dauenhauers passed away while working on a book of Raven legends entitled, Neechx̱ Yaa Nagút Yéil: Raven is Walking Along the Beach. SHI is working with Tlingit language scholars to complete their final book, which will be volume five of the series. These volumes were published jointly by SHI and the University of Washington Press, and they serve as models for all subsequent work by SHI and others.

The Dauenhauers also developed several publications designed to assist students to learn to speak Tlingit, which were also published by SHI. Richard later taught Tlingit language courses at the University of Alaska Southeast, where he was the president’s professor on Alaska Native languages.

Richard passed away on August 14, 2014, and Nora “Walked into the Forest” on September 25, 2017, at the age of 90.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Kathy Dye, Media Specialist, 907.321.4636,

Caption: Richard and Nora Dauenhauer in 2012. Photo by Brian Wallace, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute.  For a high-resolution image, contact