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"Her spirit and her ability to connect the different worlds of her experience teach us much about how to live our lives properly."
"Her poetry is a permanent testament to the rich tapestry of experience that was her life."
Mary TallMountain was a Native Alaskan writer and elder who lived for many years in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. She is remembered for her generous encouragement of aspiring writers of all ages, from inner-city San Francisco to remote villages in Alaska where she taught poetry to children in her later years.
She was born in 1918 in Nulato, a village along the Yukon River in Alaska, to a Koyukon/Athabaskan mother and a Scots/Irish father. When her mother became terminally ill, Mary was adopted by a non-Native couple and taken away from her village. Traumatized first by losing her family and homeland, then by the harshness of mainstream American culture, she felt like an angry outsider for many years. Writing was a way of going home, of reclaiming her ancestry, her family and her homeland, and a way of claiming her own proud native voice. Her stories and poems portray life along the Yukon River and her removal from that land. Her work also captures tender images of street life in inner city San Francisco.
For more than 20 years, TallMountain was active in the Native American literature renaissance. Her poems and stories have been published in dozens of anthologies and periodicals nationwide, including The Language of Life, The Harpers Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry, The Alaska Quarterly, and Animals Agenda. She read for audiences throughout California and Alaska, and her work is used in teaching Native American Studies at many colleges and universities throughout the United States. In 1989, TallMountain was interviewed by Bill Moyers and read for his PBS poetry series called The Power of the Word. Her work has been collected in book form in The Light on the Tent Wall, (UCLA Press, 1990) and A Quick Brush of Wings (Freedom Voices, 1991), as well as the posthumous collection Listen To the Night (Freedom Voices, 1995). For many years she wrote a column called "Meditations for Wayfarers" in the Franciscan publication The Way. The Rasmussen Library at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks houses an archival collection of TallMountain's published and unpublished works.
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