Joan Kane (copyright Seth Kantner) Joan Kane is Inupiaq with family from King Island and Mary's Igloo, Alaska. She earned her bachelor's degree from HarvardCollegeand her MFA from ColumbiaUniversity. Kane's awards include a 2007 individual artist award from the Rasmuson Foundation, a 2009 Connie Boochever Fellowship from the Alaska State Council on the Arts, a National Native Creative Development Program grant, and a Whiting Writers' Award for her first book, The Cormorant Hunter's Wife. She received the 2012 Donald Hall Prize for her second book, Hyperboreal. She is recipient of the 2013 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Literature Fellowship, the 2013 Creative Vision Award from United States Artists, and will be the 2014 Indigenous Writer in Residence at the School for Advanced Research and faculty for the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Along with her husband and sons, she lives in Anchorage, Alaska. She is currently fundraising through United States Artists to crowdsource an important project, Ugiuvaŋmiuguruŋa, that would take her and others to her remote and now-uninhabited ancestral home for the first time.
The upcoming book includes your poem “Disappearer”, which begins with an epigraph by Lisa Stevenson that says “Disappearance, extinction, the inability to survive as a race—these are the anxieties of an Inuit modernity. They lie at the fuzzy border between cultural and biological extinction.” To what extent does that anxiety inform your work, your parenting, your desire to finally reach KingIslandfor the first time? With the recent death of Helen Pushruk, my grandfather’s sister, there is only one King Islander remaining alive from the generation in which people lived complete subsistence lifestyles and were born and raised and lived on the island. My grandfather did not ever learn to speak (or write) a single word of English. The King Island dialect is so unique and particular that each time we lose people whose first language is in our dialect, whose verbal and conceptual grounding is on King Island itself, we lose a considerable bit of our identity, our culture. I’m desperate to bring my children, along with our cousins and aunts and uncles and other relatives, to the island so that their identity can be affirmed at an early age. I want their existence to be informed by the very harsh and very beautiful environment that our ancestors and family survived and thrived in for thousands of years. I don’t want a momentary set of policy decisions by the federal government last century to defeat any chances of King Islanders from being fully self-determined in the present and future. To my mind, that self-determination needs to be contextualized in the notion of “selfhood” that is informed by the home that our mothers and aunts and uncles and others grew up in and knew. I mention Helen not just because her passing was deeply sorrowful for our community and family. I mention it also because she was very patient in teaching me highly specific things about our dialect. She and her husband Simon Pushruk used to help raise me at their house at Heintzelman projects in downtown Anchorage. I try to keep up a lot of translation work. I researched the word kavitagzaqtaaŋa for a long time — finally I asked her. It is a word that refers to the sound the wind makes as it shakes/slams against a seal intestine window in the entry to a house at King Island. If she hadn’t told me, I don’t know who would have. So many elders and other fully bilingual did not remember but her recollection was invaluable on and opened doors to other memories about such words from other speakers of the King Island dialect. My work is written both out of an urgency to record this knowledge before it is lost, but more than simply being documentarian, I write poems and plays and now fiction, because I am interested in the role that language – transmission, publication, preservation, voice, perspective – plays in cultural survival. Words are very powerful. The world of your poems is a very physical and placed world. The sense of both real and imagined landscapes permeates your poems. How important is place to your identity and process? Absolutely critical. Words are powerful. Places are powerful. Identity, for me, is informed by my place in the context of a cultural and physical landscape. King Island itself has been wholly inaccessible to me so far in my life because of the now-mindboggling logistics of getting there. I can see it from Nome, from Cape Woolley, from the Teller Road outside of Nome. I have been told in such detail about its houses and buildings and clubhouses and places to pick greens and how my mother played as a child; it is so vivid to me. But I have never been there. That feels like a huge blind spot in my construction of a self, and always has. I have seen and heard and witnessed the trauma relocation has had on us as King Islanders. Going back isn’t going to erase that trauma, but is a necessary part in moving forward and having a complete sense of identity, of coming to terms with the terrible and persistent trauma that Native people experience on a daily basis as a colonized people. How did your long stint away from Alaskain Bostonand New Yorkaffect your identity and process as a poet, and how did coming home influence your work? I was homesick. My first book of poems was nostalgic and yearning. I have always yearned for King Island but living in NYC through 9/11, subway strikes, blackouts, and being part of a truly egalitarian and anonymous urban setting was necessary to me in so many ways. Luckily I got to come home and go to Shishmaref and Nome during the summers and every chance I could get. I needed, too, some distance from being here in Anchorage. I decided to leave Anchorage in the winter of 2000-2001; after the painful winter, the winter when Della Brown was raped and murdered, the winter when so many Native women were attacked and assaulted. I had never felt more vulnerable and unsafe as a Native woman in this city. The statistics certainly uphold that. I couldn’t live here and create. I couldn’t live here and witness this continuing trauma and devastation of our people. I moved back and just about within a year my uncle was killed in a hit and run accident. The police finally found the man who murdered him, but the only thing that resulted was the revocation of his license. My uncle’s death was very hard on my family. My first son is named for him. I began to feel a complete responsibility to my son after my uncle died – when I was about three months pregnant. I began to feel a sense of responsibility as a mother to begin righting the wrongs and looking to a time when we as Native people, as King Island people, take a proactive role in furthering our self-determination.
How have other King Islanders and your Inupiaq community reacted to your work and your current efforts to reach KingIsland? I was elected to the Board of Directors of the King Island Native Corporation a few weeks ago. This demonstrated to me a sense of real support for the vision of us as King Islanders responding to relocation and assimilation. It is our home, together. It is part of our collective identity. Many relatives and others in Nome and elsewhere are eager to join me on the trip, especially the aspect of bringing our children. This is our future. So many King Islanders are homeless – not just literally, in Nome and Anchorage and Fairbanks and Portland and Seattle – but culturally. Luckily our language and dialect are still alive. Luckily, I am alive. We have one of the most phenomenal groups of traditional dancers and drummers. We also have generations of people who haven’t been home or anywhere near it for three or four or five decades since we were forcibly relocated off the island. It is time to go home, symbolically, as a way of paying due tribute to the sacrifices our ancestors made for us to exist and live today. And in actuality, so that this aspect of our identity is not lost to future generations. How does the upcoming Hyperboreal differ from your debut Cormorant Hunter’s Wife? What are you working on now, and what directions will a trip to KingIslandtake you and your writing? Hyperboreal was written in its entirety after I returned home to Alaska. Since moving back, I have worked at the very high policy level as Director of the Alaska Native Policy Center at First Alaskans Institute, at the Denali Commission in looking at some of the existing decisions to situate or evaluate communities’ responses to current federal programs, at the corporate level working for another of my village corporations, and very fortunately, on the personal level as I’ve traveled extensively in Arctic Slope, Bering Straits and NW Arctic regions. The book is much more accessible, less nostalgic, and more proactive in engaging questions of identity, language, and memory. I just finished a third manuscript of poetry, When the World was Milk. I have started a novel that is preoccupied, right now, at looking at the real implications of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. My novel and next manuscript will draw heavily on returning to King Island. For my whole life, I have wanted to go there. My writing and professional careers have made possible trips internationally and within the US – and in Indian Country. I see tremendous creative and cultural potential in helping King Islanders return home. Can you comment on your forays into other genres, and perhaps about the particular way that poetry seems to be a home for you as a writer? With two young kids, poems have been the easiest to write in terms of my time and training. Poems don’t presume having all of the answers. My poems do raise a lot of questions and give breathing room in interstitial spaces. Poetry is home for me in those formal and personal contexts. The plays have been a real challenge, not just bringing them into being on the page, but on stage as well. The novel is taking so much time. I think all of these other genres have strengthened my poetry writing. But it takes a lot for people to get to poetry. Maybe these other works – the novel, the plays – can help readers get a bit more comfortable with my voice and vision and artistic efforts. For more information about the Ugiuvaŋmiuguruŋa, or to donate, visit: http://www.usaprojects.org/project/ugiuva_miuguru_a_i_am_from_king_island Also, for a great chance to hear Joan and others speak about King Island, stream this story from KNOM’s May 9th news broadcast, beginning at 2:44. Jeremy Pataky is a poet and writer based in Anchorage and McCarthy, and a board member for the 49 AlaskaWriting Center.
Dan Bigley is a bear-attack survivor, but much more than that, he’s a loving husband, a warm father, and a dedicated social worker. Though mauled in 2003, he learned to not only live, but to thrive and love again. Deb McKinney is a freelance writer who fled Montana for Alaska. Beyond the Bear, a tale of sorrow, loss, transformation, and overcoming, brought these two strangers together. It is a memoir to the memory of the mauling and a unique narration of those it affected, a story not only of Dan but of a community. Why did you move to Alaska?Dan: Alaska has been one of those places that has always captured my curiosity in the Last Frontier sort of way. It’s nature’s last stand. Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve always been fascinated with Alaska, its scenery and wildness. I first came up to Alaska in 2001 as part of an independent study on the cultural history of Alaska through Prescott College and just knew that seeing it in the fall I really wanted to see it in all the seasons. It felt like home. I graduated from college that December, and in June 2002, I moved up to make it home. Deb: Alaska was never on my to-do list. I ended up here because the phone rang one night at my place in Missoula, and instead of one of my housemates, I got to it first. The woman on the other end was trying to track down a friend of mine who’d been hired by her company to stake mining claims in Alaska. He wasn’t around, and somehow she and I stayed on the phone and started chatting and laughing and generally hitting it off. By the time we hung up, she’d offered me a job. I’d just started a new job as a waitress at the Old Spaghetti Factory. I had a degree in journalism. So my first day of that job was also my last. I spent that spring and summer hopping out of helicopters alone in the middle of nowhere, surveying a grid and staking claims for a minerals exploration company. After three summers of surveying and cooking in various camps, from the Interior to the Alaska Peninsula, I decided it was time to check out winter. I got a job at the Anchorage Daily News, and planned to stay two winters max. That was in 1984. Is writing your day job, Deb?Deb: Writing is my day and my night job. How long have you been writing?Deb: I started as a high school sophomore, writing for my school newspaper and have been at it ever since, all because of a dynamic journalism teacher named John Forssen. At the time, I was unhappy about my family splitting up and was kind of lost. Mr. Forssen saw something in me and nurtured it along. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without that man. That’s the power of a gifted teacher. I got the chance to tell him this before he died. And when he did, I flew down from Alaska to attend his memorial service in Montana, that’s how much he meant to me. I have vivid memories of him standing in front of our high school journalism class pounding his fist on his desk and shouting “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!” He was a grizzled, tough old marshmallow. I have to toss in the name of my high school here because it’s the best name ever. Hellgate High. Tell me that’s not awesome. What originally got you into the craft?Deb: I was born into a newspaper family in Hillsboro, Oregon. My great-grandmother, Emma C. McKinney, bought into the Hillsboro Argus in 1904 as a young, single mother who’d lost her husband to tuberculosis. Five years later, she became the sole owner, publisher and editor. She was quite the force. The National Newspaper Association’s highest award for women in community journalism is named in her honor. She worked into her 90s. By then, my grandfather, Verne, was at the helm, then my father, Walter McKinney. All three of them are in the Oregon Newspaper Hall of Fame. So I was the fourth generation — no pressure or anything. But then I ran away to Alaska.Why writing and not drawing or art or sculpture?Deb: Unlike drawing or sculpture, writing allows you to change your mind without leaving a trace. It can be tweaked and fiddled with over and over, at least until your editor starts making death threats. I’m kind of known for worrying my stories to death. My writing coach at Poynter Institute, the late Foster Davis, once told me, “You need an editor who knows when to pull you off the carcass.” Dan, why did you decide to use writing (or storytelling) as an outlet?Dan: In my field - mental health - there’s a concept called the Sleeper Effect, and basically what that refers to is that if you hear something enough times you believe it’s true regardless of the reliability of the source. That happened for me in the aftermath of the bear. It seemed like everyone who I told the story to would respond with ‘you should write a book’ and so in 2005 I just woke up with the notion that ‘hey, I’m going to write a book.’ I was a writer, in school and reflective journaling and poetry, but at the time I was also getting ready for grad school and getting ready to be a father. I wasn’t going to have a lot of time. I talked to my dad and he purchased a few books on How To Write a Book. I read them and that’s really how I got started. Why did you decide to co-author Beyond the Bear?Dan: I made the decision of getting a co-author both because of her experience in writing and also her knowledge of the craft, as well as time. Deb: Writing a book was never on my to-do list, but I always figured if the right story came along I’d consider it. Then I met Dan Bigley. His story is so deeply moving, and his ability to tell it so well was a writer’s dream. It’s been a great collaboration. We put what each of us had to offer into a blender and out came this book. How did you two meet?Deb: I was with the Anchorage Daily Newswhen Dan’s mauling first made headlines. It was so disturbing. Two months after the bear, Dan left the state for specialized surgery and to attend a school for the blind. Before he left, he sent an open letter that was published on the front page of the ADN. Well, what do you know? I just happen to have it right here: “If it were not for the wonderful treatment provided by Dr. Kallman and Dr. Ellerbe’s office and the amazing care of Providence hospital, I would not have survived. The members of this community really came together in my family’s time of need to extend their thoughts, services, financial aid, and most of all their prayers. I have been healing quickly and I attribute this to those Alaskans who have extended themselves and their thoughts to my recovery. I thank you more than words can express. Keep on fishing, and I’ll see you out there next summer.” How do you forget someone like that? Five years later, when I learned that Dan was back in town, I did a where-is-he-now profile for ADN. He talked of his dream of a book. We teamed up and here we are.
Dan: Well, originally I started looking around and found a Fairbanks author. We started discussing how it was going to work when out of nowhere I got a call from Deb McKinney. She was interested in writing a story on a five-years later ‘where are you now’ type of thing. The story came out; I was impressed so I called her up and asked if she was serious. How did the process work for you two?Dan: It was a great collaboration to start with, and I think I can speak for both of us when I say we each really did bring something extremely valuable to the table. I brought a great story. Obviously what she brought to the table is that she’s just an incredible writer, and part of the value in that was the ability to shape how the different parts of the story were going to tie in together. The other thing that she brought to the table which really enriched the book was her rich history in journalism. We interviewed over fifty people for the book, over countless hours, so she was really able to take the perspectives of the doctors, the family members and friends, and rescuers, and tie up loose ends to really make what the story was in the book.How was the publishing experience?Dan: It was very crazy, to be honest. It wasn’t necessarily what I would call the best experience. We had two different publishers with two different book deals. Basically what happened is we were picked up by one of the big ones and we felt in the beginning that they believed in the story like we did and how it was more than a bear book, that it was an inspirational story and a love story. I’m not sure when that started to change but it did, and we no longer shared the same vision of what the book was. We decided not to submit our final manuscript and they were kind enough to give us back our rights. Fortunately we were very lucky and Globe Pequot Press loved the story. We’ve had a much better experience working with them. Dan, did you ever get storyteller’s block? Deb, what do you do when you get writer’s block?Dan: Not really, since it’s a true story, my life story, and so it’s sort of like the story told itself. We just had to recall what’s happened. There was so much to tell, the hardest part was to decide what had to go. I think, by far, that was the more challenging part. Deb: Writer’s block is my evil twin. When I seize up, which is often, I go on a house-cleaning frenzy. Nothing like dancing around the living room with a feather duster, with Frank Zappa’s “Guitar” blasting from the speakers to loosen things up in your head. Other times, in Anne Lamott fashion, I just start writing crappy stuff, then come back later and de-crap it. Why did you decide to switch POVs so often, transitioning from first-person to an almost omniscient narration? Dan: We started the prologue in 3rd person then transitioned to 1stperson through the rest of the book, but there were parts of the story when I was unconscious or in a medically induced coma or other things were happening that weren’t right in front of me but needed to be included into the story - like the scene when Brian heard the news and made the journey up to Alaska - so in order to really bring some of that to the table we did have to switch into that more narrative voice, still 1st person but more me reflecting back on what we had gathered in the aftermath. I’m very pleased about how it worked out.Deb: How do you keep the first-person going when the narrator is in a coma for a couple of chapters, then loopy on pain meds for another chapter or two? The answer was to watch others react to what happened to him. His brother, his friends, his brand-new girlfriend, Amber.
Do you think all of these different POVs strength your story?Dan: Absolutely! I think in so many ways that was what made the story so rich. It wasn’t just my story, there was a medical story, a whole story from Amber’s perspective, what my family went through trying to internalize the news of a) I might not live and b) I would be blind if I did live. So absolutely those elements made the story a lot more real.Deb: I absolutely think they strengthen Dan’s story. What happened to Dan profoundly impacted many people, loved ones and strangers. No one got off easy.
You included a lot of his personal life (as well as others) into this work. How long did it take you to compile all of the information?Deb: We started talking book after I profiled Dan for the Anchorage Daily News in 2008. The book was his idea, and it took me a long time to get on board. By the time I left the paper in 2010, I was committed. We traveled to California together, which is where he did the majority of his healing, to interview his parents, brother, friends, therapists and staff at what’s now the Hatlan Center for the Blind. We got a proposal together, and got our agent that spring. We spent more than six months stockpiling more interviews with everyone from the surgeon who saved Dan’s life, to the only other person in North America to be completely blinded by a bear and live to tell about it. Next came a complete revamping of the proposal, then writing an additional sample chapter and creating a marketing section with some meat on its bones. After that came many more interviews with many more people who helped fill in the blanks in Dan’s memory and that stretch of time he was out of it. Just translating his medical records, which are a couple of phonebooks thick, into common language was a project. And then people kept surfacing: “Hey, are you Dan Bigley?” “I am. Who’s that?” “I’m Wes Masters. I was with you in the ambulance that night.” This is a long-winded way of saying that compiling all these details took forever.
My final question: Did writing/crafting this book help move past the bear attack? Deb: When I sent him the first six chapters, the chapters leading up to and including the mauling and immediate aftermath, I hit the “send” button without thinking about what it would be like for him to read them. (He reads via talking computer software.) I’d been working with the material for so long I’d become numb to it, but it hit him like a bus. He was flattened and did a lot of crying that day. I felt so awful. But he considered that a good thing, a necessary thing. I think that speaks to how powerful his story is and how brave he is to tell it. Dan: There’s something to be said for talking about our traumas as trauma survivors that helps us process it in some way. But it wasn’t the countless revisions of chapters that helped me process the bear mauling. I would say more of what’s been helpful for me in the writing process was to really put the story together and to create a full narrative that is more than just the attack, and to be able to see the beauty of its various parts. It’s more than just the bear mauling and the loss of my eyes. There is the beautiful story of how the community really came together to support me. There’s this beautiful story of how I put my life back together, and not only live but to thrive and to have dreams and to actualize those dreams. The fact that I can look at the story now and see how Amber was such a presence and still is in my life - how can I not feel lucky looking at the story through those lenses, to now have a beautiful family with two kids and a job that I love doing. There’s a lot there to feel uplifted and inspired by. To create a narrative for myself that’s so positive has been really healing and certainly a part of how I moved beyond the bear.