Mary TallMountain

Born: 1918

Renowned Native Alaskan writer Mary TallMountain experienced a difficult childhood. She was born in Nulato, Alaska, a small Koyukon village near the Yukon river, to a Koyukon/Athabaskan mother and Scots/Irish father. She considered her community the “poorest of all indigenous peoples in this country”; it dealt with extreme economic hardship that led to widespread tuberculosis, a disease that ultimately claimed the lives of her mother and brother. Shortly before her mother died of tuberculosis, she adopted Mary TallMountain out to the doctor who had been treating the community’s tuberculosis outbreak in the hopes of providing TallMountain with a better life. TallMountain was six years old, and the rapid change of being taken away from her community in Alaska, as well as having her culture erased by being forbidden to speak her native Athabaskan language, colored TallMountain’s childhood with resentment, grief, and isolation. Because of this experience, she spent her early years rebelling against her adoptive parents and had struggles with alcoholism and suicidal ideation as an adult. She also attributed physical maladies, like cancer and strokes, to the lingering effects of her traumatic childhood. She lived most of her adult life in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, working as a public stenographer and law secretary before she finally began to write and publish poetry at the age of 55. TallMountain became extremely involved in the Native American literary renaissance, publishing in several anthologies and periodicals and even her own collections 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). Her writing explores themes of reclaiming her ancestry, the blending of religious identities between Native practices and Catholicism, the nostalgia and hurt that her childhood wrought, and tender poems about the homeless and elderly in San Francisco. Fifty years after she was taken away from her home in Alaska, TallMountain finally returned to spend her later years teaching poetry to children in remote Alaskan villages. She died in San Francisco in 1994.