alaskan, author, musician, educator
Growing Up in Territorial Alaska
I was born in a hospital that doesn’t exist anymore, in a town you can only get to by plane or boat, in a state that was not a real state. The 20th Century was exactly half over. No one had walked on the moon or heard of cell phones, the Seattle Seahawks or Lady Gaga. The best was yet to come!
The hospital, St. Ann’s, and the town, Juneau, were in the Territory of Alaska, which wouldn’t become a state until 1959. Juneau was the territorial capital. It had 6,000 people, 40 miles of road, and one traffic light. The largest gold mine in the world had closed a few years before. Salmon swam up streams right into town. Bears nibbled berries in backyards. Whales played just outside the harbor. Huge totem poles told stories of the Tlingit People, who have lived here for thousands of years. Our own glacier, the Mendenhall, flowed down from a huge field of ice that runs all the way to Canada.
Today, 32,000 people live here, but not much else has changed except the traffic lights. The salmon, bears and whales are still our neighbors. A new Alaska Native heritage center is going up in the center of town. We even have a gold mine, two in fact. Our glacier is still here, too, but smaller, like so many others.
My three sisters and a dog named Boochie lived right across the street from the Evergreen Cemetery. We skied and sledded around the tombstones. My sisters and I thought it was heaven.
My dad was an attorney and later became an Alaska Supreme Court Justice. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to be the first Alaskan on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. My mom, although a registered nurse, stayed home with us until we were older and then, like a rocket on the loose, exploded on the Juneau and Alaska art’s scene to start the Juneau Arts Council, the Juneau Little Theater, and the Alaska State Council on the Arts, to mention a few of her ‘projects’. Both parents are still remembered today for all their hard work that laid the foundation for the special community Juneau has become.
Reading and Writing
I got the ‘reading bug’ when I was about 8. I shared a room with Mimi, my little sister. She didn’t like the light on when she wanted to go to sleep. Luckily, during the long Alaskan summer days I could read into the night just by keeping my curtain open. In the winter the moon was my light. I practically inhaled every Nancy Drew mystery in the library and was completely in love with Pippi Longstocking. Misty of Chincoteague and King of the Wind left me inconsolable, but I loved every minute. My favorite way to fall asleep is still with a good book.
I never wrote much as a child, but I told lots of stories. In the fifth grade, I got to tell scary stories to the whole class. I often took the ideas from dreams I had. As soon as I woke up, I would run to my mom and tell her all about them. Most of the stories were designed either to teach my younger sister a lesson or to scare everyone out of their minds! But usually I was more scared than anyone.
I came to writing through my elementary music students. Unable to find musical plays that didn’t ‘talk down’ to kids, I began writing my own. After studying ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, I developed a passion for multi-cultural music and learned that combining ethnic legends with music from the culture was a great hook for my students and a way to promote understanding between diverse cultures. I wrote, produced, and directed many musical plays for my students and won several awards along the way.
One of my latest projects is, Our Ancestor’s Stories: Reader’s Theater Adaptations of Southeast Alaska Native Legends from the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian in collaboration with the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Watch for it in the Spring 2014.
I recently left my hometown on Juneau and moved to Bellingham, Wash. with my frighteningly intelligent Dutch dog named ZZ (stands for the Zuider Zee), and my husband, Scott Miller. I love to ski, swim, play piano, and tend my garden. My four children, Liorah, Zach, Megan, and Spencer are all grown but only Zach has stayed in Juneau. Zach Stenson teaches Physical Education and runs a water taxi business in the summer in Gustavus. My one granddaughter is TigerLily and she (alas) lives in Spokane.
In 2011, I earned an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults. Bristol Bay Summer is my first novel. A special thank you to Doug Pfeiffer Publisher, Alaska Northwest Books, Editor Michelle McCann, and my number one critic, my dear husband, Scott Miller.