Category Archives: Alaskan Natives

“Art Was Supposed to Save Canada’s Inuit. It Hasn’t.”

“Indigenous work is all the rage in the Canadian art world. But life in the North [for The Inuit] is as much a struggle as ever.” C. Porter, The New York Times

Ooloosie Saila, Landscape with Rainbow (2016)

Excerpt: Drawn From Poverty: Art Was Supposed to Save Canada’s Inuit. It Hasn’t. By Catherine Porter, The New York Times Photographs by Sergey Ponomarev

Hours before flying off to her debut show in Toronto, Ooloosie Saila, a rising star in the Canadian art world, was hiding in her grandmother’s room on the frozen edge of the Arctic Ocean, cowering in fear.

Between her and the future stood the man in the next room, a relative who was drunk and raging — again. Then, she packed in a frenzy. She threw the hand-sewn outfit she had chosen for the opening into a plastic garbage bag, pulled her two young sons out of bed, grabbed her art supplies and fled into the frigid night.

Kananginak Pootoogook —

Four days and 1,425 miles found Ms. Saila at the Feheley Fine Arts gallery in Toronto, where the crowd sipped wine and gushed over her ‘bold use’ of color and negative space…Except for grade school, she has never taken an art class. It is a golden moment for the Indigenous people of Canada. At least, in theory.

The country is going through a period of atonement for its history of racism. While much of the world has turned inward, becoming more xenophobic, Canada has been consumed with making amends.

Kananginak Pootoogook — Madrona Gallery

Public meetings across the country routinely start with an acknowledgment that they are standing on traditional Indigenous lands. In history classes, Canada’s young learn about their government’s systematic attempts to erase Indigenous cultures. Buildings have been renamed, street signs changed and in one city, a statue of the country’s first prime minister removed.

Canadians call this ‘reconciliation,’ and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who faces a tight re-election vote on Monday, has made it central to his government and image.

Painting- Shuvinai Ashoona

In Ooloosie Saila, many might see the embodiment of these aspirations: an accomplished artist being feted for her depictions of the Inuit landscape in brilliant pinks and oranges.

But the world she returned to after the opening, the hamlet of Cape Dorset, is plagued by poverty, alcoholism and domestic abuse… It’s made up of scattered homes — many boarded up — an aging ice rink and a busy jail, packed with binge drinkers. With no movie theater or downtown, a general store serves as the social hub. There is a brand-new high school, but only because the old one was burned down by fume-sniffing teenagers. The town is so small the streets are unnamed.

Almost 90 percent of its residents live in public housing that is crowded, run-down, and has a three-year waiting list. Suicide is rife: The stony graveyard is dotted with crosses marking young people. More than half the residents rely on public assistance.

Untitled (Winter Scene) – Inuit Gallery of Vancouver Ltd.

Artists like Ms. Saila may do a little better, but the vast majority eke out a living, often below the poverty line. Many support large extended families that depend on them for food — most of it flown in at exorbitant cost so that a single cucumber goes for $4.50.

On long winter nights, when the sun is a five-hour memory, the temperature in Cape Dorset can reach a lung-burning 40 below zero. Still, carvers sit outside their homes under lights, transforming chunks of stone into seals and polar bears, the air ringing with the high-pitched sound of their electric grinders.

The Inuit of Cape Dorset were once the epitome of self-reliance, members of a hunting culture where everyone had a role. They lived entirely off the frozen land, searching for food by dog sled.

Then government workers lured them into the town, built around a trading post in the 1950s, with promises of permanent housing and school. In some cases, they shot their dogs, stranding them.

Officials soon took note of the Inuits’ artistic skills, and thought that they might offer a bridge to a stationary existence, a way to make a living. Art has been a central feature of Cape Dorset life since then.

In 1959, artists created a co-op with an Inuit-led board that oversaw sales and plowed profits into the creation of a general store.

In the center of town is a symbol of the co-op’s success: a new, modern $9.8 million cultural center with spacious art studios and the hamlet’s first gallery space.

Artists stream into the cultural center, work in hand, looking to be paid.’They might sit in a drawer forever,’ said the studio manager at the time, Bill Ritchie. ‘We have drawings and drawings and drawings that will never sell.’By one government estimate, most artists across the territory make only about $2,080 a year. A handful of artists top $75,000 a year.

‘If you work hard like that, that’s what could happen,’ the assistant manager, Joemee Takpaungai, told one artist, Johnny Pootoogook, who was working in the studio on a drawing of five men drumming together. It was a memory from his recent stint in jail.

Painting- Kananginak Pootoogook

Mr. Pootoogook’s father, Kananginak, who helped found the co-op, became such a successful artist that his work headlined the Venice Biennale.

But Johnny, 48, has fallen prey to abuse, depression and alcohol. He says he tried to hang himself 20 years ago. For him, art has been the one constant, but he is still waiting for his first show.

In fact, some blame art for the town’s problems.

Caribou by Kananginak Pootoogook –

‘Sometimes, when they get quite a bit of money, they use it to have access to drugs and alcohol,’ said Timoon Toonoo, the hamlet’s mayor.

By any measure imaginable, life for Indigenous people across Canada is harsh…In winter, snow covers everything — the winding roads, the polar bear skins stretching outside on homemade racks, the shells of old snowmobiles heaped in the dump. The airport is often closed and when it is, everyone is stranded: There is no other way in, or out. A few supply ships come in during the summer, but like all 25 communities in Nunavut, Cape Dorset is completely isolated.

One January evening, Ms. Saila sank into her living room couch, watching the 1980s American sitcom ‘Three’s Company,’ flanked by her two young sons and her grandmother, Sita.

Her grandparents grew up nomadically, living in igloos and sod houses. They raised Ms. Saila, but by then they had settled in town.

One night at 11, Ms. Saila sat at the kitchen table, fished a green pencil from a plastic bag on the floor and set to coloring her latest landscape. Her children were finally asleep, so she could work.

It had been three months since her art opening. What had changed in her life?


Her time in Toronto, it seemed, had amounted to little more than fond memories and snapshots affixed to her fridge. ‘It was fun,’ she said quietly.

The co-op manager said her rate had gone up ‘big time,’ but she hadn’t noticed. How much had she saved?

‘Nothing,’ she said again.

As Ms. Saila worked, the back door burst open time and again. First came her sister. Then her brother. Then her aunt, trailing three young children and a boyfriend. They made themselves coffee and opened the fridge, rummaging for food.”

Category: Alaskan Natives, Culture | Tags:

The New PBS Cartoon ‘Molly of Denali’ is the First to Have a Native Lead

“The new PBS cartoon ‘Molly of Denali,’ which centers on an Alaska Native family, is perhaps PBS’s most ambitious effort yet to educate its young viewers about a distinct cultural group.” J. Jacobs, The New York Times

Excerpt: With ‘Molly of Denali,’ PBS Raises Its Bar for Inclusion, By Julia Jacobs, The NYT

“When two children’s television producers from the East Coast set out to make a show about an Alaska Native girl whose parents run a rural trading post, there was no question that they would need some cultural guidance.

The new PBS cartoon Molly of Denali, which centers on an Alaska Native family.

Dorothea Gillim, who was executive producer of the ‘Curious George’ television series, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where the grocery chain Wegmans originated, and she had long imagined a children’s show that centered on a store that was the hub of the community. The show’s other creator, Kathy Waugh, who was a writer on ‘Arthur,’ envisioned a story about an adventurous young girl living in a remote area.

The setting for the show came to Gillim in 2015, when the news media was covering President Obama’s trip to Alaska.

On the eve of the visit he [President Obama] announced that the name of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, would be restored to Denali, its Alaska Native name.

A scene from Molly of

The show that the producers dreamed up, called ‘Molly of Denali,’ ended up becoming a PBS cartoon about a 10-year-old Athabascan girl with a video blog about life in rural Alaska. PBS says it is the first nationally distributed children’s series with a Native American lead.

The show, which premieres across the country on Monday, was written for children ages 4 to 8. It follows the spunky and inventive Molly Mabray and her friends as they solve kid-friendly problems, like earning enough money to buy an inflatable tube to ride on the water or finding ways to keep four-legged creatures out of their garden.

The core narrative of the show involves Molly making new connections to her Native identity…PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the nonprofit that distributes federal funds to public broadcasting stations and programs, including ‘Molly of Denali,’ urged the producers to find a way to intimately involve Alaska Native people in the making of the show.

In one episode of Molly of Denali, Molly and her two friends prepare for a canoeing competition. Credit PBS Kids

To make sure they got the show right, the Boston public broadcaster WGBH, which produced the show, involved more than 60 people who are Alaska Native, First Nations or Indigenous in writing the scripts, advising on cultural and linguistic issues, recording the theme song and voicing the characters. ‘We recognized our own ignorance of the subject and we didn’t want to repeat stereotypes,’ Gillim said…It’s a scope of inclusion rarely seen in children’s television, one the show’s Native writers and advisers hope becomes a new standard for how TV producers handle specific cultural identities…’It became very clear to me that I’m sitting with people who don’t know anything about my culture, about where I came from,’ said Luke Titus, one of the advisers.  Titus, 78, an Alaska Native elder who is Lower Tanana Athabascan, discussed growing up in a small cabin in an Alaskan village and the centrality of nature in his community. He eventually got used to the idea that it was O.K. to interrupt the producers to share his own insight, a behavior that isn’t part of his culture’s custom, he said. He shared painful stories, too, including one about being sent away to boarding school when he was about 12 years old, part of a broader forced assimilation campaign by the United States government.

Boarding school is a common childhood memory for Native Americans of a certain generation… At the heart of the show are Molly’s efforts to learn about her family’s Alaska Native heritage and sustain it as a member of a younger generation.”

“The People of the Whale”

“Kiliii Yuyan is an indigenous Nanai photographer who documents native cultures and wilderness conservation issues. He spent time with the Inupiat, an indigenous community from North Slope Alaska, whose lifestyle and culture is dependent on subsistence harvest of marine mammals.” K. Yuyan, BBC

Flora Aiken gives a blessing to the first bowhead whale of the spring season. Photo- K. Yuyantiff

Excerpt: The people of the whale-By Kiliii Yuyan, BBC

“Members of the community are allowed to catch limited number of bowhead whales a year from stable populations. The first boats to harpoon the whale receive shares. The lead whaling crew divide the head between them.

This camp, erected miles out on the sea ice, is an Inupiat home away from home during hunting season. K. Yuyan

The Inupiat have a rich spiritual life that centres around the gift of the whale to the community. The cure for feeling cold while out on the ice is to eat quok, the Inupiat word for frozen raw meat and fish.

Misigaq, or seal oil

Seal is also a source of food for the Inupiaq. Misigaq, or seal oil, is a liquid made from the blubber of the bearded seal. It is left to ferment for a few days at refrigerator temperatures before eating.

Beluga whales are seen trapped by sea ice as shifting winds create unstable conditions. K. Yuyan

Sigvaun Kaleak and his father, Raleigh, are lifelong whalers. Although commercial whaling has taken a massive toll on the global whale population, the Inupiat have maintained a sustainable harvest.

Six-year-old Steven Reich examines his father’s umiaq, or skin boat used for whaling.

Tad, captain of Yugu crew, expresses excitement about taking Steven out whaling on the ice for the first time. I am proud of my son – he’s here to learn to be a hunter, he says.

Bernadette Adams was the first Inupiat woman to harpoon a whale. “I happen to have no brothers, so I had to find some way to help the family out,” says Bernadette.

Here, successful crewmembers do the blanket toss. They are thrown up to 30ft (9m) in the air, and depend on everyone’s help to land safely.

Inupiat elder Foster Simmonds has been a whaler since he was a child.”


Category: Alaskan Natives

In Alaska: Cake Is King!

“In a modest boardinghouse on an Alaskan island just 30 miles across the sea from Russia, a handwritten order form hangs on the refrigerator. There are photos of cakes a few women in this village can make for you: rectangles of yellow cake and devil’s food enrobed in buttercream, with local nicknames piped out in pink. Happy Birthday Bop-Bop,one reads. Another, Happy Birthday Siti-Girl.” J. O’Malley, New York Times

“Eating in rural Alaska is all about managing the expense and scarcity of store-bought food while trying to take advantage of seasonally abundant wild foods. Cash economies are weak, utilities and fuel are expensive and many families live below the federal poverty line.

To offset the cost of living, Alaska Natives here rely on traditional practices of hunting, fishing and gathering… In a good year, they fill freezers with moose, berries, caribou, salmon or marine mammals, depending on where they live. In a bad year, they have to buy more from the store.

The offerings in village stores often resemble those in the mini-marts or bodegas of America’s urban food deserts at two and three times the price.

Cake mixes are the center of our little universe,said Ms. Erickson, who owns the only grocery store in Tanana. Credit-Ruth Fremson:The New York Times

Food journeys in via jet, small plane and barge. Milk and eggs spoil fast. Produce gets roughed up. Among the Hostess doughnuts, Spam and soda, cake mix is one of the few items on shelves everywhere that require actual cooking. As a result, tricking out mixes has become a cottage industry, and many villages have a  Cupcake lady with her signature twist.

Some bake as a hobby, while others do a brisk business selling cakes in places where getting to a bakery requires a plane ticket. In the far north, bakers make cake with fondant photo prints of Inupiat whaling crews and serve it with mikigaq, fermented whale meat. On the western coast, mixes may be prepared with sea gull eggs. In the interior, pineapple upside-down cake is eaten with a salad made of lard, sugar, berries and whitefish. Some recipes call for nothing but a mix and a bottle of Sprite.

In Unalakleet, 300 miles west of Tanana on Norton Sound, Donna Erickson  is a noted cake lady. Her most famous creation was born in a rush to get to a community potluck. She made a white cake and poured it into a sheet pan because she knew it would bake quickly.


I mixed orange Jell-O with two cups of bright orange salmonberries. I poured it on top of that cake and I threw it in the fridge she said. People were just like, Wow, can you make that again for me?

Rural Alaska has some of the highest rates of accidental death and suicide in the country. When there is tragedy in Unalakleet, bakers bring cakes to the school multipurpose room and lay them on a big table with corresponding numbers. Popular flavors include salmonberry, tundra blueberry and low-bush cranberry.

Then the cake walk begins: People buy a ticket, then circle the table while music plays. When it stops, somebody draws a number out of an old coffee can. The person standing by the corresponding cake wins that one and the money goes toward healing someones family, Donna Erickson said.

It’s a festive environment even though it’s a sad time.

You should see the cakes; they are so beautiful. Village bakers are so brilliant.”

Category: Alaskan Natives

Is All Fur Bad?

“When PETA pops up, you know it’s that time of year, with temperatures dropping, gift guides proliferating and fur once again becoming a topic of debate, setting activists against enthusiasts, man against nature, indulgence against ethics. But as the holiday season begins, it may be worth pausing to consider another idea, courtesy of a designer who exists far outside mainstream fashion… to say that Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams, the founder of Shaman Furs, is not a fashion person would be putting it mildly.”V. Friedman, The New York Times

Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams, the founder of Shaman Furs, performs a smudging ceremony for his hunting rifle outside his home in Sitka, Alaska. Credit James Poulson for The New York Times.

Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams, the founder of Shaman Furs, performs a smudging ceremony for his hunting rifle outside his home in Sitka, Alaska. Credit James Poulson for The New York Times.

“He is, rather, a somewhat scruffy 34-year-old Alaska Native with long hair and no formal design education who identifies as an environmental activist and member of the Yup’ik tribe, and who has made it his mission to reintroduce style to the allure of sea otter. Not to mention the idea of traditional subsistence hunting, and the value of knowing your clothes.

On the one hand, there is the popular (and justifiable) distaste for anything that involves the killing of cute, cuddly creatures. On the other is Mr. Williams’s homegrown but broadly resonant and deeply felt theory about ‘mis-consumption’ and the way we have become disconnected from what goes in our closets — and on our bodies.

PETA ad.

PETA ad.

‘We don’t want to think about the plants we are wearing when we wear cotton, and we don’t want to think about life and death,’ he said in phone interview from Alaska. He thinks it should be the opposite.



Mr. Williams comes to this belief as part of his birthright, and he expresses it in the form of a pencil skirt. He calls hand-sewing a “prayer” and says that for him, hunting equals environmentalism equals spirituality. For him, the universal language of fashion is the best vehicle for amplifying the heritage and legacy of his people while at the same time ensuring the future of those people — in part because his staple material is one of the most precious pelts no longer widely available.



Mr. Williams walks with a model wearing his pencil skirt made from sealskin.

Mr. Williams walks with a model wearing his pencil skirt made from sealskin.

Shaman Furs, a one-man operation run out of a 900-square-foot trailer that doubles as atelier and apartment, specializes in hats, vests, earrings and pencil skirts made from sea otter and sealskin, pelts that Mr. Williams harvests, designs and sews himself (the only part of the process he outsources is the tanning) in an elaborate combination of traditional ritual and modern basics.



It involves an aluminum skiff, “smudging” (ritualistically cleansing the body and spirit with Labrador tea smoke), a .223 Ruger bolt-action rifle, a skinning knife, thanking each animal for the gift of its life, and the rite of giving the otter or seal a last drink of water after its death. The ritual doesn’t obviate the visceral nature of the hunt, even for Mr. Williams, but that is part of the point.



It’s not that he expects to convince PETA. His clothes don’t make that kind of statement and probably couldn’t if they tried. He’s just trying to unpick assumptions, one stitch or pair of earmuffs at a time.”

“I want to maintain the individual relationship I have with the animals, and create an intimate experience for those wearing my work.” ~ Peter Paul Kawagaelg Williams~ Yup’ik tribe, Alaska

Category: Alaskan Natives

The Challenging Life of Inupiat Teens

Being a teenager is tough wherever you live; but as shown in a documentary by filmmaker Nick Brandestini, living as a Native teen in rural Alaska is very complicated. Children of the Arctic tells the story of four Inupiat teens growing up in the small community of Barrow, Alaska.” J. Asenap, ICTMN

An image from Children of the Arctic by Director Nick Brandestini (Photo Film Website)

An image from Children of the Arctic by Director Nick Brandestini (Photo Film Website)


Excerpt: Children of the Arctic…By Jason Asenap, ICTMN

“The teens highlighted in the film include Josiah and Flora, a young couple in love who are trying their best to adhere to a traditional lifestyle at home while pursuing an education outside of their Native community. There is also Maaya, who gives suicide prevention presentations but craves simple teen activities like eating fast food and going to malls, and has dreams of moving to Arizona.

Samuel, 14, is an avid hunter and has been since he shot his first caribou at the age of six. Website

Samuel, 14, is an avid hunter and has been since he shot his first caribou at the age of six. Website

Finally there is Ace Edwards, who is being groomed for a leadership role in the community but becomes overwhelmed by the plans his community has for him.

Ace, 17, is a charming young man with a plan and a faux-hawk. Elders see Ace as a future leader of the community. Photo website

Ace, 17, is a charming young man with a plan and a faux-hawk. Elders see Ace as a future leader of the community. Photo website

The film addresses the challenges young Indigenous youth face today, including the role youth play in the continuation of culture and some of the tough decisions youth have to make, such as moving away and getting an education or staying home and helping the family in whale harvesting. 

Flora, 18, is a driven young woman who cares deeply about the preservation of Iñupiat culture. Photo- website

While Ace clearly has frustrations and thirsts for more traditional knowledge, Josiah and Flora fear that when they go away to college, they will be missing out on many events in the community, and valuable time with their elders…The community is heavily Christian and the influence of Christianity creates tension between religion and traditional Inupiat culture, a common theme in many Native communities.

Inupiat Teens. Photo- film website

Inupiat Teens. Photo- film website

The Inupiat and surrounding communities are also scarred by suicide. Ace’s brother committed suicide, and Maaya tries to help her community heal through her presentations on suicide prevention.

Josiah, 18, is passionate about Native traditions and an enthusiastic member of an Eskimo dance group

Josiah, 18, is passionate about Native traditions and an enthusiastic member of an Eskimo dance group

The film also shows that the heart of the community is in the whale harvest. After the whale is hunted, traditional songs are played as the women butcher and meat is cooked.”

Hold on to what is good, Even if it’s a handful of earth.

Hold on to what you believe, Even if it’s a tree that stands by itself.

Hold on to what you must do, Even if it’s a long way from here.

Hold on to your life, Even if it’s easier to let go.

Hold on to my hand, Even if someday I’ll be gone away from you.

~Pueblo  Prayer~

Illustration for suicide prevention success story in NW Alaska

Category: Alaskan Natives