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When Mary TallMountain died in September 1994 at the age of seventy-six, she had been seriously writing and publishing poetry and fiction for a little more than twenty-five years. Although her work never attracted the notice given to some Native American Renaissance women writers, it has attracted a large and loyal following. Many of her readers are teachers who find that the spiritual quality of her work and her awareness of being a survivor (and more) often moves their students to tears. Her stories and poetry illuminate the experiences of a lifetime committed to bringing all her various worlds—Athabascan, Russian, Irish-American, pagan, Catholic, agnostic, tribal, and middle-class Anglo—together in one body.
Biographical and Historical Context
Adoption from an Athabascan Village
Mary Tall-Mountain was born Mary Demoski on June 19, 1918, in the tiny Koyukon village of Nulato, Alaska, just west of Fairbanks. TallMountain’s mother, Mary Joe Demoski, was of mixed heritage, Russian and Athabascan; Athabascans are the native inhabitants of modern-day central Alaska who, most scientists believe, are descended from people who migrated from Asia over 35,000 years ago. Her father, Clem Stroupe, was an American soldier of Irish and Scottish descent who was stationed with the U.S. Army at Nulato.
Like many native Athabascans at that time, Tall-Mountain’s mother was stricken with tuberculosis even before Mary TallMountain was born. When TallMountain was six and her brother Billy was four, Mary Joe Demoski, knowing that she would not live, made the decision to give up her two children for adoption to the Randles, the white government doctor and his wife. She hoped that, by doing so, the children would receive the education and advantages she had longed for and, most important, that they would be saved from inevitably contracting tuberculosis themselves. Because of the decision of the village council, the little boy stayed, and Mary was sent away with the Randles.
A Silent and Self-Destructive Rage
Although TallMountain was saved from dying of tuberculosis, she came close to losing her life anyway through the toll of the move on her spirit and emotions. in Oregon, she was exposed to the ridicule of white schoolchildren, an experience she recounts in her poem, ”Indian blood,” in The Light on the Tent Wall: A Bridging (1990). Forbidden to speak her native tongue by the Randles, she also began to be molested by her new stepfather. The molestation continued for years and would lead TallMountain to alcoholism as an adult.
TallMountain’s adolescent and early adult years were marked by tragedy. Because of financial troubles during the Great Depression of the 1930s, her family became migrant workers, finally ending up in Portland, Oregon. Her adoptive father died of heart failure just after she graduated from high school, and her husband, Dal Roberts, whom she married at the age of nineteen, died after only three years of marriage. TallMountain’s adoptive mother committed suicide in 1945 because she was dying of Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. Alone, TallMountain left Portland for Reno, where she would train as a legal secretary.
Struggles with Alcoholism and Cancer
From Reno, TallMountain moved to San Francisco, where she continued working as a legal secretary. The pain of her past drove her to secret drinking, and she continued to drink and live in what she described as a ”grey world” into her forties. Eventually she realized the toll that alcoholism was taking on her body and her life, and she decided to stop drinking completely. TallMountain then set up her own stenography business and, for a while, enjoyed a new feeling of being her own boss. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1968. She fought and overcame it, but in the process, she lost her business and her apartment and had to move to the Tenderloin, a poorer part of San Francisco to which many of the elderly poor, the homeless, prostitutes, and drug addicts gravitate.
Taking Up Her Journals Once More
It was in the Tenderloin that she took up the journals that her adoptive mother, Agnes, had taught her to keep as a child. Tall-Mountain’s illnesses eventually resulted in her inability to work and finally, in her receiving a disability pension; the small income enabled her to spend her later years writing, teaching, giving readings, and getting published. Circumstances that might have thrown a less committed person into the street and destitution offered TallMountain the opportunity to dedicate herself to what she came to see as her life’s work.
TallMountain began writing poetry in the mid-1960s, and Simon Scanlon, the editor of The Way of St. Francis, encouraged her. In 1977, after TallMountain’s second bout with cancer, Scanlon published Nine Poems, TallMountain’s first chapbook, through Friars Press in San Francisco. She was fifty-nine years old. The following year, Good Grease was published by Strawberry Press in New York.
Shortly after the second cancer went into remission, TallMountain followed a rumor of her birth father’s whereabouts and was able to locate him in Phoenix, Arizona. He, too, had been diagnosed with cancer, and TallMountain moved to Phoenix to spend the last two years of his life with him. After his death in 1978, she began work on the poetry that would become her first volume of clearly Native American poetry, There Is No Word for Goodbye (1980).
Discovered by Alaskan poet Geary Hobson and provided with a grant to travel and teach in local schools, TallMountain returned to Alaska after her father’s death. In subsequent years, she regularly traveled north to read poetry and teach in community centers, schools, and prisons. In 1987, she founded the Tenderloin Women Writers Workshop, a support group where local women could share written expression of their lives. In 1990, The Light on the Tent Wall was published, and in the following year, Freedom Voices Publications, an associate of the Tenderloin Reflection and Meditation Center, published A Quick Brush of Wings.
Only after a stroke left her with aphasia in 1992 did TallMountain begin to turn down the many requests to read that still flowed to her at her apartment in Petaluma, California, where she had moved that year. She continued to write until her death in 1994.
Works in Literary Context
Although her earlier work is difficult to classify, Tall-Mountain was known primarily as a writer of Native American poetry. She was the best-known poet from the Athabascan region in central Alaska, and many of the poems in her collections There Is No Word for Good-bye and The Light on the Tent Wallevoke some aspect of Athabascan culture. However, she was most widely known for her poetry’s continual struggle to overcome the sense of alienation that may result from a mixed ethnic and cultural heritage and unite various aspects of her being.
Native American Poetry
Native American poetry typically finds its inspiration either from specific tribal traditions or from the sense of collective Native American identity, which sees the fact of being Native American as an experience that is shared among all tribes and cultures. Like many forms of minority writing, Native American poetry seeks to illuminate experiences that have been either misinterpreted by mainstream culture or ignored. Some of its unique characteristics is its tendency to blend nature with spirituality, and to incorporate elements of the oral storytelling tradition.
TallMountain is ranked among scholars with other Native American poets such as Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, and Wendy Rose. Like theirs, TallMountain’s poetry makes extensive use of natural imagery. Her work also often recalls a sense of alienation and displacement in modern mainstream society.
Works in Critical Context
Despite her presence in anthologies and journals, Tall-Mountain’s work has attracted little in the way of critical reviews. She was, nonetheless, recognized as one of the foremost poets and fiction writers of the Native American Renaissance. Many public figures have rated her work among that of such acclaimed Native American poets as Joy Harjo, Leslie Silko, Linda Hogan, and Wendy Rose. Those who have commented on her work—largely her peers—agree that TallMountain’s poetry deserves far greater critical coverage than it has received.
Rayna Green, in That’s What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women, comments on the critical status of Native American women writers in general: ”In spite of inclusion …in anthologies, prizes, awards, fellowships, and readings throughout the country, [Native American women writers] find appreciation primarily among a specialized audience—Indian, feminist, politically attuned.”
Very little academic criticism of TallMountain’s writings is available except in Paula Gunn Allen’s volume The Sacred Hoop, published in 1986, well before the appearance of The Light on the Tent Wall. In The Sacred Hoop, Allen describes TallMountain’s work as revealing ”a deeply spiritualized sensibility.” She claims to be disturbed, however, by the ”difficult and uneasy alliance” that she perceives between TallMountain’s ”pagan awareness . . . and the less earthy, more judgmental view of medieval Christianity.”
Light on the Tent Wall
The foreword, written by Allen for Light on the Tent Wall, indicates she had come to understand, by the time of its publication, that Tall-Mountain was fully capable of embracing both beliefs— pagan and Christian—and making her home within the transformation. Rather than a source of disjunction, Allen finds that the apparent contradiction in TallMountain’s beliefs can become a source of unity and universality: ”In telling her life and the life of her far away people, she tells all our stories; she tells our lives. And in so doing not only affirms life, but re-creates it.”
- Gunn, Paula Allen. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
- Review of The Light on the Tent Wall. Ms. Vol. 3 (September 1992): 62.
- Review of The Light on the Tent Wall. Western American Literature Vol. 27 (Spring 1992): 91.
- Czapla, Cathy. ”And a Deer’s Ear, Eagle’s Song and Bear’s Grace: Animals and Women.” The Animals’ Agenda Vol. 11, no. 8 (October 1991): 49.
- Tucker, Debbie. Review of Raven Tells Stories: An Anthology of Alaskan Native Writing, Library Journal Vol. 116, no. 13 (August 1991): 102.
- Welford, Gabrielle. ”Mary TallMountain’s Writing: Healing the Heart—Going Home.” Ariel Vol. 25, no. 1 (January 1994): 136(19).
- Gislason, Eric. ”A Brief History of Alaska Statehood.” American Studies at the University of Virginia. Accessed November 25, 2008, from http://xroads. virginia.edu/~cap/BARTLETT/49state.html.
- Partnow, Patricia. ”Athabascans of Interior Alaska.” Alaska Native Knowledge Network. Accessed November 25, 2008, from http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/Curriculum/Athabascan/Athabascans/alaskanathabascans.html.
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