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ALASKA AT 50The Past, Present, and Next Fifty Years of Statehood
University of Alaska PressCopyright © 2009 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCarrie Irwin Brown
Alaska Native Art Past, Present, and Future
As I turned the corner and crossed the cobblestone street onto Mercer street in SoHo, a trendy, high-end shopping and residential district in New York City, I saw it-hanging above the sidewalk jam-packed with pedestrians-a light blue and brown flag gently drifting back and forth in the light September breeze. The Alaska House. So simple, and yet so all-encompassing. Despite the warm fall weather I got goose bumps and my steps quickened. As I approached the gallery I was greeted by familiar "faces"-a large white marble sculpture of a polar bear by Iñupiaq artist Larry Ahvakana; Alutiiq duck masks by Perry Eaton; an ivory fox mask by King Island artist Sylvester Ayek. Little pieces of home, of Alaska, thousands of miles away.
I felt some of what I envisioned our fellow Alaskans felt when they opened their front doors on June 30, 1958, to pick up the Anchorage Daily News and read the headline in big, bold, black type: WE'RE IN! In that sense it felt that we-we Alaskans, we Alaska Natives-had finally "arrived." arrived in the public consciousness of America, arrived on the global stage ... arrived. Here we are, and we are Alaskans. We are Alaska Natives. We are Americans. We belong in this place, at this time. Come celebrate with us and learn about the rich and diverse cultures we represent.
New York is definitely a global center when it comes to art and art markets. And to have Alaska Native artists represented in a venue all of our own, so to speak, is simply, well, nothing short of amazing. While Alaska Native artists are no strangers to museums, galleries, and exhibits across America and worldwide, fifty years ago Alaska was still known as Seward's Icebox and it was hard for most to fathom just what America would want with such a place. It was difficult to comprehend Alaska ever being a part of mainstream American culture in any sense, and Alaska has long remained in the shadows of our nation's workings in many ways. But here, at last, a place for Alaskan ideas, for Alaskan art and culture-all Alaska, all the time.
As a state, Alaska has had a long-term presence in national affairs through our long-term representatives to the U.S. Congress, and we have a particular fondness for and love affair with Washington, DC-but little elsewhere in the nation. When I travel I am still astounded to hear some of the same questions that I was presented as a child. You know the usual Alaskan stereotypes: Do you live in igloos? Do you ride a dogsled to school? How high is Denali?
Our role as Alaskans and as Alaska Natives going out into the larger world is to educate people about Alaska-that we are Americans, that we represent many different cultures, language groups, and tribes, that we are indigenous people who still exist on our ancestral lands. That we have much to contribute to America and the world. And not just energy as in oil and gas, but also the energy of our people through the creativity and ingenuity that has allowed the First Alaskans to live and thrive here in this land since time immemorial.
Due to our geographic distance from the rest of the nation we need to constantly remind the rest of the States that we're a part of this country, too. Remember us, up here? No, we're not that little box on the map, below Hawai'i off the coast of California.
The year 2008 was an historic year that catapulted Alaska into national and international spotlights, due in large part to Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's run for vice president with presidential candidate senator John McCain of Arizona. That has brought a bright spotlight to shine on our great state, which all Alaskans can be happy for, regardless of political persuasion. It has called attention to our people, our land, and our resources.
Also, Alaska's arctic is widely agreed to be the "canary in the coalmine" on the issue of global warming, as many of our remote villages are affected most directly and immediately by changing sea levels and raging storms. More than ever, scientists are watching the Alaska arctic and its people for new ways to adapt to changing ecosystems.
And, there is great interest in the resources of Alaska lands, particularly oil and gas, as has been the case since prior to statehood. But with increased consumption and decreased supply from within the United States, energy is as hot an issue as it ever was.
All of these various factors coming together have meant that Alaska is even more rapidly becoming a critically integrated part of the rest of the United States, in a way we've not seen in the past. It is an exciting time to be an Alaskan, and to be an American. And, inevitably, in the next fifty years, Alaska will continue to become an increasingly integrated part of the larger global world. It is inescapable. As so simply said by my good friend Trina Landlord (Yup'ik, Mountain Village), "The world is our backyard."
As a young girl growing up in the Interior, I would read and dream about all the places I wanted to go around the world. I was one of the lucky few who had relatives "outside" and would visit the exotic land of Texas and come home with all of the coolest, hottest trends, clothes, and music. I pursued a degree in international business and studied in Hawai'i and abroad in Japan. I have traveled often within the United States as well as to other countries. All of these experiences have helped me to form a more complete worldview, and, in turn, to better understand and appreciate my own background and culture.
Having lived in another country, it was revealed to me early on that as Alaskans we could ill afford to ignore the people and countries that surround us. In Alaska we are truly located at the crossroads to the world and the study and knowledge of foreign affairs and global issues is increasingly critical.
As is the case across the globe, we can safely say we are undergoing the process of globalization-which can be described as a process by which the people of the world are more aligned and unified as a single society and function together. Globalization is technological, it is cultural, it is ecological, and it is social. Generally, the ideas of free trade, capitalism, and democracy are widely believed to facilitate globalization. And even after fifty years of statehood, these are still concepts and ideals that we as Alaskans, and particularly Alaska Natives, strive to understand and embrace.
We see the effects of globalization in all facets of our everyday lives: more optic communications, satellites, and increased availability of telephone and Internet services than ever before. We see the growth of cross-cultural contacts and the willingness to adopt new technologies and practices, and to participate in a "world culture." We see global environmental challenges that can only be solved with international cooperation, such as climate change, cross-boundary water and air pollution, overfishing of the oceans, spread of invasive species, increasing pollution, melting sea ice, disappearing species. We see the increased circulation of people from all nations, with fewer restrictions than ever before. We see greater exposure to cultural diversity, along with disappearing languages and cultures. We see greater access and ability for travel and tourism. We see more immigration and emigration. We see an increase and spread of consumer products to and from other countries. We see worldwide fads, pop culture, and sporting events. And we see the creation of international criminal court and justice movements.
This "flattening of the globe" has a real and impactful effect on us as we venture out into the world. The year I attended college in Nagoya, Japan, my younger sister completed her senior year of high school in Paris, France. Keeping track of three time zones was difficult and communication sporadic. Between myself, my sister, and my parents, we spent (literally) hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on international phone calls. Cellular phones, e-mail, and the Internet were not yet invented. I think of how much more connected we could be now in the same situation. How much easier that year might have been for all of us-to be able to connect whenever the thought moved us.
As Alaska Natives, we need to adjust rapidly not only to the norms and confines of Western civilization, but to world civilization. The challenge for Alaska and Alaska Natives in particular will be to adapt to this rapid globalization while protecting and sustaining our uniqueness, individuality, and identity.
In 1912, when Alaska became a U.S. territory, the U.S. Census listed a statewide population of 29,500 Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts; 4,300 "Caucasian Alaskans" and 26,000 "Cheechakos" (newcomers). Current census population figures from 2000 show a total state population now of a little more than 625,000, of which Alaska Natives comprise about 19 percent. While overall, Alaska Natives are now greatly outnumbered by non-Native residents, the majority of the Alaska Native population (58 percent) still lives in rural and remote Alaska. The urban Alaska Native population is increasing (now 42 percent), especially this year as energy costs rise and we are seeing an influx of people moving out of the villages. We have an extremely young population in the Native community, with more than 50 percent under the age of eighteen. Both rural and urban Native populations are young, living longer, and experiencing a changing household composition. the issues and challenges that the changing demographics have on the Native community and on Native artists remain to be seen.
In addition, Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, is also seeing rapid changes and an explosion in population. People from very different backgrounds and from many different countries have come and are coming to Alaska. There are now there more than two hundred languages spoken by the children and parents in the Anchorage School District. These are things that no one could have predicted fifty years ago.
And the composition of the Alaska Native artists' community is quickly changing. Of the thousands of Alaska Native artists who have been identified statewide by various arts organizations and efforts, many are Elders. the number of knowledge- and wisdom-bearers, who may be the last ones who continue a particular trade or craft, is decreasing each and every year. Each year, we all look forward to the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Convention and of course the annual arts-and-crafts fair. We are eager to see old friends from across the state, smiling faces sitting behind the tables, chatting with those who are there to take home a small piece of the artists' lives. Little did we know that when we visited with Rosalie and Ursula Paniyak from Chevak at the AFN Convention in Fairbanks last year, it would be for the last time. Rosalie, a revered Elder and master artist-a dollmaker of whimsical, wonderful dolls-was dying of cancer. I will wonder each year if there is an artist there who we may not see again. Each time I am saddened by the thought that their craft-their beautiful art and life's work-may die with them. Have they taught others? Did the carver who passed away unexpectedly this summer teach anyone how to make those special earrings that were like no other? Were they his father's design? His grandfather's design? Has that been lost?
All of these changes have of course had complex impacts on the everyday lives of all Alaskans, and particularly Alaska Natives. Global warming is impacting Alaska Natives in many, many ways, as so many villages are at the forefront of these global changes. Will villages exist, as we know them, in the future? For some, perhaps not in their current form, or current locations. All of these issues impact the creations by Alaska Native artists.
It is impossible to reflect on any time period in Alaska Native art history, or to contemplate the future, without contemplating the varied cultures of Alaska Native people at the same time. They are inextricably linked, braided together like the waters of our Alaskan rivers. It is impossible to reflect on Alaska Native art at any place in time without thinking about the larger Native community-the makeup of people and places, and their relation to the larger Alaskan, American, and global world.
Even as an Alaska Native, I have much to learn. A whole new world has been opened up to me about the histories and cultures of Alaska Native people, through art. Through the energy of the carvers, sculptors, painters, jewelry makers, seamstresses, beadwork artists, mask makers, contemporary artists, writers, actors, musicians, performing artists and dance groups, and through the many, many other kinds of art that Alaska Natives use to express themselves.
In many profound ways, Alaska Native art, or at least the creation of Alaska Native art, is not greatly affected by Alaska being a state or not being a state. Alaska Native arts and cultures exist outside of that realm, in a way. It-they-have existed for thousands of years-for us, since time immemorial.
There is no word for art in any of our Native languages, since Alaska Natives have always used the bounty from the land and sea that surrounds us to create and express ourselves-from the Tlingit in the southeast with their dramatic and striking red, white, and black motifs, to the Athabascan in the north, with beadwork and basketry that are beyond compare.
As with many indigenous peoples without a written language, for Alaska Natives art has served, together with oral traditions, as a means of transmitting stories, history, and wisdom from generation to generation. It provides us with a tie to the land, and depicts our histories. All of life is intertwined and expressed through art.
As with all artists, Alaska Native artists remain motivated primarily by our own need to create. To express ourselves and to tap our limitless imaginations. It is a way to share our cultures and spirituality with the world. Native artists are positioned to work with a variety of unique materials, such as walrus ivory, whale bone, baleen, furs, hides, and other uniquely Alaskan materials. Federal laws allow for Alaska Natives to use these materials as by-products of subsistence lifestyles. When an animal is harvested to feed a family in rural Alaska, every single part of it is used, down to the whiskers on a walrus.
Non-Natives learn who we are through ivory carving, whale-bone sculpture, beadwork, weaving and baskets, dolls that are miniature replicas of somebody's grandmother or granddaughter. Alaska Native art is a collection of images of the people who are reflected in each creation. You can see our fears and worries. You can see awe in the nature and beauty that surround us. You can see it and feel it in the paintings of bright scenes of village life and community celebrations, the distribution of the whale after a successful hunt, nature, sea mammals-bright colored seals, bears, sea lions, birds-reflected in the imagery of an ivory tusk or carved in whale bone.
The stories are about shaman, about the many revered creatures, about transformation-from man to animal, animal to man, transformation of our lives and our people. They are about the land and the sea, and the many bounties they provide that sustain us. They are about the creatures of that land and sea-the birds, whales, walruses, otters, moose, and the plants and flowers.
Art speaks to those who view it. We are Yup'ik, we are Iñupiaq, we are Athabascan, we are Tlingit, we are Sugpiaq. We are Alaska Natives. We are Alaskans, we are Americans, and we are citizens of the world. We belong in this world, at this place, at this time. It is a continuation of culture, for another ten thousand years.
Native artists carry with them fragments of our cultures and are bringing those elements into the much broader scope of world civilization. We cannot return to the old ways, but we must retain the old ways and reflect them in our attitudes and in our art. And while it can be assumed that contemporary Alaska Native artists draw on their cultures' stories and traditions in their creations, many contemporary Native artists do not restrict their explorations of Native traditions to a single group or media. This is not necessarily an indication of the loss of tribal identity so much as a celebration-celebration of the stories each culture has to offer and the respect each holds for its place and traditions.
Excerpted from ALASKA AT 50 Copyright © 2009 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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