‘Like Seeing a Piece of Your Heart’
By the time Lily Tuzroyluke was in college, she’d already shown a drive for community leadership. She interned at Alaska Native organizations as she pursued a degree in justice, organized social welfare programs, and returned to her community of Point Hope to work for the tribal government. Tuzroyluke was meeting with her mentors, Rex Tuzroyluke and Jakie Koonuk, when Rex made a suggestion — couched in a classically Iñupiaq indirect observation. Rex said that over his lifetime he had met a lot of authors, historians and researchers, some big names you’d recognize, who had written about Point Hope. But — and Rex paused — none of them were from Point Hope.
“And he let me sit with that,” Tuzroyluke said. “That was a really transformative moment for me. It drove me.”
What Rex certainly knew and counted on was not only Tuzroyluke’s experience with Alaska Native advocacy, but her gift for storytelling. She began writing fiction in eighth grade. A simple class assignment led Tuzroyluke to write a poignant poem about her half-brother’s grandmother visiting the old Alaska Native hospital in Anchorage and taking a cab in her hospital gown. Her teacher was not only moved by the poem but encouraged Tuzroyluke to submit the poem to the Anchorage Daily News’ creative writing contest. She won.
“So it was my teacher who really got it started,” Tuzroyluke said. “My teacher had really fostered that outlet for creative writing.”
Tuzroyluke’s debut novel, tentatively titled “Real Human Being,” is the natural culmination of her talent for creative writing and her care for her community and heritage. Her historical fiction centers around an Iñupiaq family in the 1890s, when the force of the American whalers was greatly impacting the Arctic.
“There’s this idea that (Yankee) whaling brought development, helped Native people survive by having that money come into the household,” said Tuzroyluke. “That’s not how the Native community viewed it.”
The American whaling crew brought smallpox, influenza and syphilis. And where Iñupiaq hunting practices reflected a balanced approach with the natural world, the American whaling crews’ harvest of local sea mammals was massively unsustainable. Up to 200,000 walruses were killed per season. This is the backdrop to Tuzroyluke’s novel.
“It’s an unknown part of history,” Tuzroyluke said. “And it’s true with other so-called developments in Alaska. You see that with oil development and extraction today. There’s an idea that oil is needed to provide jobs and keep the community’s economy going. I disagree with that.”
The effect of development and exploration is a theme in Tuzroyluke’s book, and a metaphor, she says. It’s challenging for the reader. But what Tuzroyluke loves is also in the book and will assuredly draw readers in. She has affinity for places, physical land where people gathered, hunted and celebrated. This is also in her book. She finds excitement in exploring the locations she writes about and hopes to see more of them.
She remembers one such moment visiting her grandfather’s home by the Nass River in British Columbia. “It’s like you’re seeing a piece of your heart that you didn’t realize was missing.”
Whether it’s her Iñupiaq heritage, or Tlingit background, or connection to the Nisga’a of British Columbia, Tuzroyluke seeks out the places people treasured — some in the past, some today. She has found traditional place names all over Tikiġaq, the Iñupiaq name for Point Hope, like “The Place Not to Camp Because of the Ghosts.” Or “The Place Where Our People Fled from the Noatak Invaders.” She puts the same feeling she finds in her own history into her novel.
“It’s in part of my book too,” she says. “The family lives in a cove. I can just imagine the beauty of it.”
It’s not only in Tuzroyluke’s novel that her care for community comes out. Her upcoming works reflect that same sense of history and identity. But two future projects will reflect much more recent history.
“I’m considering a nonfiction book about the Alaska Native cold cases,” said Tuzroyluke, referencing the dozens of Alaska Native women who have been murdered or have gone missing in the past two decades. “It’s a really important issue for Alaska Native women and the justice system. So little is written in the media about these cold cases.”
She’s also writing a novel about a homeless mother and son, both Iñupiaq, when the mother is murdered. She joins the ranks of the countless “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” across the U.S. and Canada, and the son must complete a difficult journey through the process of the murderer’s arrest and trial.
All of Tuzroyluke’s projects reflect her advocacy and community work, knowledge of Alaska Native history and love of the written word. She writes from a place of both knowledge and ancestral inheritance, and it flows from her pen. Her debut novel recently has been picked up for publication, with promises of much more to come.
“My heritage is the basis of my art. It’s the foundation of my writing,” she says.
And yet with all her work and gifts, she doesn’t stop with only her own contribution to the field of fiction.
“I want to encourage Alaska Native writers to put forth their stories. Foster it. Move forward. Take any opportunities you can. Our indigenous voice is important in our history.”
With that call to arms and many more stories to uncover, Tuzroyluke keeps writing.