Joan Naviyuk Kane: Speaking Their Language
Poet Joan Naviyuk Kane writes to reconcile the experiences of her Iñupiaq community with the narratives of a society that would define them from outside.
Joan Naviyuk Kane is an award-winning poet and a member of the Inupiaq people. Her work often explores life within her indigenous community and uses imagery of her native Alaska.
She was born in Anchorage in 1977; her family had relocated from King Island in the Bering Sea in previous decades. After earning a BA at Harvard College and an MFA from Columbia University, Kane published her first book of poetry, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, in 2009. She won an American Book Award for her second collection, Hyperboreal (2013), and released her eighth anthology, Dark Traffic, in 2021. Among her other awards, she received a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the Donald Hill Prize in Poetry, and the Alaska Literary Award.
She is a lecturer in English at Tufts University in Boston, and teaches at Harvard and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The seafaring Inupiaq people survived thousands of Arctic winters on King Island in the Bering Sea, 90 miles northwest of Nome, Alaska. Today, the island stands deserted; it’s stilt buildings crumbling as the last generations of native islanders live out their days on the mainland. On the face of it, a harsh environment.
Joan Naviyuk Kane: Unless you come from a culture of people who have subsisted on marine mammals for 15,000 years, in which case it is the premium place to live. And to have a, you know, intergenerational healthy culture where everyone participates in survival and, and providing for each other.
Inupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane is descended from a long line of King Islanders.
Kane: And it’s a premium location for marine mammal life. Even in this time of considerably catastrophic climate change, it’s still a place where everything that migrates to the Arctic through the Pacific Ocean, migrates right past King Island.
Although raised on the mainland by her parents and extended Inupiaq family, Kane’s life took her on an improbable journey to the East Coast and an Ivy League education, where she would struggle to reconcile her place in Western society with her indigenous heritage.
Kane: I’ve been thinking a lot about a personal narrative of loss, and the, you know, the private reasons for me moving thousands of miles from Anchorage. And the public reasons for doing so, and thinking about those dynamics in the context of, say, what my grandmother experienced, raising nine children on King Island, and the sense of loss that also is about preserving what you can and keeping alive what you can, which essentially is doing the best you can to take care of yourself and the others around you.
Until the mid 20th century, the self-sufficient Inupiaq wintered on King Island, hunting, crafting, and schooling their children. But in 1959, the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the King Island school, predicting imminent disaster from falling rocks. It’s still standing today. Families were left with little choice but to relocate. Resettled in Nome, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and cities in the lower 48, the last of the King Islanders left their winter home in 1971, for good.
Kane: We had a really hard time finding teachers, and then women, my grandmother and other women, King Island women, really needed access to a different series of supports. I mean, it was a time of tremendous change. A lot of people were constantly being sent away to recover from tuberculosis or other diseases, including my grandmother and grandfather. And it was, the reasons for moving were a lot more complex than the rock.
Born in 1979, Joan Naviyuk Kane was raised in Anchorage, where options for native people were limited. She showed academic promise, and in junior high teachers encouraged her to write. At 17 she was accepted at Harvard, but, surrounded by more privileged classmates who knew their place, she felt lost.
Kane: I was terrified by Harvard. And I was terrified by these cultures of, ease, and engagement, and exchange, and conversation. I think a lot of the missionaries told, told many native people, “Oh,” you know, “you should be seen and not heard.” I wasn’t there for more than, you know, two weeks, not even, you know, a very short amount of time, and I said, “This is not for me, and I’m not, and I’m, I’m done.” And I was not yet 18 so they sent my father to come get me. And I had to go, I went, I went back to Anchorage, and I, I thought about it for a year. Did I want to go, did I want to be part of this? Could I do it? Was it worth it?
Back in Alaska and searching for work, Kane foresaw a future of minimum wage jobs and a life of fighting for personal safety.
Kane: That was another kind of survival that I was also not particularly well-suited for, you know, as a teenage indigenous girl, woman, you know, in Anchorage, Alaska. One in three native women in this country is a victim of a violent sexual assault. And Anchorage, Anchorage is a place where I saw that as something that would be inevitable for me. And something that I, that was more far more uncomfortable for me, than that the feeling of completely being at sea.
After a year, Kane returned to Harvard, where in a freshmen poetry class she found people who saw and accepted her.
Kane: I remember showing up as a freshman on campus and, you know, applying for Helen Vendler’s freshmen poetry seminar, and, you know, writing my letter and application and going in to have a chat with her and not realizing that 700, you know, 700 of my classmates had also applied. But we fell right into a conversation, that I was never able to have before. Really, certainly not with, well, actually, maybe with two other people, you know, a high school English teacher and then, you know, a summer program writing instructor.
AJC: It’s a lovely feeling, isn’t it?
Kane graduated from Harvard in the year 2000, and in 2006, got her MFA from Columbia University. The same year she returned to Alaska and a job as a research analyst and policy consultant for the First Alaskans Institute, an Alaskan native policy center. But the data and policy analysis she encountered didn’t seem to make sense of her lived experience as a native person.
Kane: I had written, you know, for many years and, and sort of worked with the facts, right? The facts: things that were used to quantify and signify our-
AJC: Place in the world.
Kane: And our distress in the world. It didn’t help me understand—these questions about economics, these programs about economic development, couldn’t reconcile the fact that I grew up with knowing that, knowing that at any time, I could be gone in the blink of an eye, and it would be symptomatic of the indigenous experience that has been going on in this country for hundreds of years. How can you talk about economic development and success and achievement when we have these unresolved wounds, and realities of complete, complete dispossession? And systems that aren’t being interrogated or called out for what they are.
Kane instead looked for understanding in poetry. In 2009, she published The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, the first of seven poetry collections and chapbooks, short works with evocative imagery of the Arctic landscape and narratives of displacement.
Kane: I was looking at my transcripts just this past week, looking for this story of like, what, who am I, and what am I doing with my life? And, and I saw that I’d gotten like a C or something in a class called “Native Americans in the 21st century,” and then “Meanings of Abstraction in 20th Century Art.” And I’m like, so funny, those are the classes that I did the worst in academically, because in some ways, they’re, the classes were Harvard’s tools for understanding native people, and for explaining native people, and explaining poetry and explaining contemporary poetry, explaining abstraction, to people who didn’t, you know, who had other aptitudes.
In “Nunaqtigiit,” from her 2013 collection, Hyperboreal, Kane layers imagery from King Island, the homes built by hand of thatch and hide, the lost landscape and the ancient line of ancestors for whom she is named, and forever connected.
(Excerpt from Joan Naviyuk Kane’s “Nunaqtigiit”)
Surely there are ghosts here, my children sprung
from these deeper furrows.
The sky of my mind against which self-
betrayal in its sudden burn
fails to describe the world.
We, who denied the landscape
and saw the light of it.
Leaning against the stone wall ragged
I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it,
I felt, and I didn’t understand:
I am bound to everyone.
In 2014, at a joint poetry reading with Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui, for a group of students at Georgetown University, Bitsui’s comments about native life in Western society sparked in Kane another realization.
Kane: He said, “Well, you guys, we’re not supposed to be here.” I started to feel this weight that I had been carrying for a long time, that I didn’t realize I was carrying, but also the sense that I wasn’t alone in that feeling and that he brought it into the room to a group of students who had never talked to an indigenous person, you know, in particular, had no idea about their own positionality with where did they grow up, whose land were they on?
In 2014, Kane led an expedition back to King Island, to experience firsthand the physical reality of the place. In the small group was her good friend, Marilyn Koezuna-Irelan.
Kane: She was the chief of King Island’s native community, chief and president, and also of our village corporation. And, I really felt it was important to take her counsel. Marilyn was raised for the most part in Nome, but she was able to spend a lot of her childhood and some of her adulthood on the island, but her mother passed away in 2011. And this was the only one of us that felt that it was safe to go into any of the dwellings on the island because things were in such a state of disrepair, but she felt that she was protected from, you know, and by, the presence of her mom.
In 2019, a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard brought her back to Cambridge with her two sons, John and George. In 2020, she was appointed concurrently to teach in the department of Studies and Race, Colonialism and Diaspora.
Kane: I think why I had to move back to the East Coast and, and had to find my place at least, you know, for a while, again, at Harvard, in particular, which is a place that, you know, I really was never meant, meant to be.
On one of many sleepless nights in Cambridge, Kane wrote of being far away from Alaska, missing her family. The poem “Sometimes There Are Even Scars” is from her 2021 collection, Dark Traffic.
(Excerpt from Joan Naviyuk Kane’s “Sometimes There Are Even Scars”)
& waking night after night in an apartment,
parched, I looked out the window into the dark
for some glimpse of what I’ve lost—
an ocean that held so many boats
built by men now dead, numerous
windings through scree to crown,
driveline, cairn, blind—
I see nothing but the sky.
Sometimes stars as bright
as collarbones gleam before
I blink, then find these firmaments
In 2021, Joan Kane’s parents visited from Anchorage, and brought a treasure of King Island photo negatives taken by her grandmother in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Kane: The images raised so many questions, you know questions that, I had this, it’s like maybe that’s the thing that I’ve been trying to do my whole life is write the poems for the questions? I’m trying to articulate the questions about my family’s past and about their lived reality that I could find no explanation for in, the books and in the tools I was given through, by, a Western education. It’s like, there’s something else that is making me write poems. Something I don’t understand. And some of it is these things that I revisit.
Today, Joan Naviyuk Kane straddles the worlds of her native Inupiaq community and the East Coast institutions that teach and mentor the next generation. And like her grandmother and mother, she will continue to preserve her native language and culture for her own children to carry on.