Every two years, Celebration brings the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people together, and this year, about 40 different artists will share their work at the Native Art Market.
“It’s really great for the artists,” said president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute Rosita Worl. “A lot of them come from communities where there is very little economy and the sale of their arts and crafts is one way that they are able to earn an income so that they can continue to live in the villages.”
Worl noted that the market has served as a springboard for the careers of many as well as another regular feature, the Juried Art Show.
Deborah Head-Aanutein is one such artist who built up her name recognition by entering her work into the Juried Art Show as well, as teaching and selling her woven pieces. She weaves with red and yellow cedar, using sea otter as an embellishment and sea shells as a signature. She doesn’t produce enough to host a website but she always sells all of the work she produces, she said.
“My first teacher was my great-grandmother but I was so young I’m not sure what I learned. It was a part of my culture and it was what she did in a traditional manner, but I wasn’t really taught. Our Elders, our ancestors, people who have passed on, don’t teach the way we teach today, like for credit or this is step-by-step and all that kind of stuff. It’s through observation and interest,” Head said.
Head has been weaving for about two decades now and has been a teacher in Craig for even longer. She was already working at Craig City School as an aide in 1992 when she was requested by the superintendent to become the cultural education teacher. She had an interest in art from college, and had already had a curiosity about her family’s heirlooms, but just because previous members of her family taught didn’t mean that she should, she said. After thinking about it for a time she accepted on the condition that she would be learning alongside the children. She took her education on the traditional art form of weaving seriously. Besides taking classes she conferred with other weavers on Prince of Wales Island, studied books, and even whipped out a magnifying glass on occasion to examine the work in photographs. If she had a question, she looked everywhere for answers, she said.
Her first weaving class was with Delores Churchill in 1992. Once she picked up the bark, she knew it would be something she never set down. She works with it every single day, whether teaching in class or working on her own projects before or after school time, she said. Now that she is set to retire this year, she hopes to dedicate more time to weaving.
“In everything I do, I strive for my next basket to be a little bit better,” she said.
Jeremiah James of yakutatfur.com on Facebook began sewing with sea otter and harbor seal in 2010. He had an interest and gave it a go during the winter once the fishing season had ended, he said. He found he enjoyed the process, and so he made sewing furs a regular thing. He has even taught several sewing classes for Sealaska Heritage Institute.
“Since I had a boat and gun, and I already knew where the sea otters were, I almost just fell into it,” James said.
James hunts for all the furs himself and sends them out to tanneries in state, which can take one to four months to return his furs, he said. He looks forward to the opening of a tannery by Kake resident Scott Jackson, he said.
James has made a wide variety of clothing items with the furs, from vests, mittens, and hats to fur-lined hoodies and infinity scarves. He estimates he has created more than a thousand different items since he began. This will be his third time attending the Native Art Market. This year he will be bringing about 30 pieces, with many seal vests among them.
Jennifer Younger of Sitka engraves copper and silver jewelry. Her work can be found in person at the SHI store in Juneau and at the Steinbrueck Native Gallery in downtown Seattle. She always had an interest in art from grade school but didn’t pursue it professionally until five and a half years ago. Her sister nudged her to apply for an apprenticeship grant to learn the art form of engraving from Sitka artist Nicholas Galanin. He agreed to work with her and Younger began.
“Once I got started, gosh, I just fell in love with it and now if I could do it 24/7 I would,” she said.
While she doesn’t do it all the time, she now gets to do it full-time. Once she started, she became increasingly busier until at one point she decided to go all-in and quit her part-time job.
“I did it, and I feel like ever since then, things have been going really well. I feel really fortunate for all the opportunities and wonderful customers that have come my way,” she said.
While she has attended the Native Art Market in the past as well as the Santa Fe Indian Market, social media has played a large role in her business. Frequently on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jenniferscopperandsilver) and Instagram (instagram/@jennifers_copper_silver) she posts images of her work in addition to her website www.jenniferscopperandsilver.com. People reach out to her about purchasing or commissioning a piece. She doesn’t work with patterns, so every piece she creates is unique, even ones that are requested to be similar to ones they’ve seen already posted.
“I feel like I’ve been fortunate enough to where people say ‘Hey I really want something that has the mountains and has a bear.’ They give me the freedom to kind of just go with my style. They’ve seen my style. They just throw some ideas at me. People will talk about what their interests are, what they want to get this person for a gift…. I don’t even spend a lot of time sketching. I just let it come to me,” she said.
Younger enjoys sharing her art with her community but also likes taking it outside of Alaska. She wants to show people that Alaska Native artists are creating for contemporary times, she said.
“Creating for me is just learning more about my Tlingit heritage. One thing that always comes to mind to me is the more I learn about my past and my heritage and my history, the easier it is for me to create a new piece…. Even though I’m making contemporary pieces, just having that knowledge… does help the creative process. You can’t just jump in ‘I’m Alaska Native so I know how to do this.’ You have to learn from your ancestors and learn the history,” Younger said.
The Native Art Market will be at the Sealaska Plaza and the Juneau Arts & Culture Center Thursday, June 7 and Friday, June 8 from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. and then on Saturday, June 9 from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.