Tourist season is almost among us. We begin to prepare for the arrival of the ships and the influx of visitors. You can see the stores downtown, that only open during tourist season, begin to take the coverings off the windows. Some local shops offer huge sales before the season begins to make room for new inventory with many of those items representing Alaska.
As an Alaskan Native, I always take time to spot the insane amount of “Alaska Native” items being sold. I think of all the absolutely amazing Native artists who have a hard time getting their art into local tourist shops. Then I think of all the “Alaska Native” art made in Indonesia and China. Put a face in a parka and put it on something that says Alaska. Take a caricature that resembles a totem pole and put it on something that says Alaska. These items are obviously not good representations of Alaska, but the shop owners feel they sell.
One of the most common things we hear as Alaskan Native artists from a shop owner is, “Your art is too expensive.” Which to us sounds like “We don’t want to pay you for your time, labor and cultural expertise so instead we are going to sell the idea of your culture with this mass-produced item made in Indonesia instead.” Sometimes the shop owner tells us “it’s not traditional enough” while standing next to their totem pole bottle openers. Sometimes the shop owner tells us “We don’t sell Alaskan Native art, only Alaskan things.”
It doesn’t matter to some of them if you had to go out for days to harvest, come back home and preserve and prepare what you have harvested, and then create for days, weeks, or months; and while doing so you usually faced difficult weather, lots of mosquitoes, and working in heavily populated bear territory. It doesn’t matter if you harvest the way you do because your grandmother taught your mom to harvest this way, who, in turn taught you. Knowledge passed down for thousands of years.
What seems to matter most is the shop owner wants to know what your lowest wholesale price is: the “cheapest” price you’ll settle for. They need to know if the product will ship easy. They need to know if it is a product currently trending this season. The shop owner wants to know if you’ll do commission. The shop owner wants to know if your art follows all of the state and federal regulations that now rule your Native art. They want to know if your art represents shamanism because shamans sold well last year.
I spend all summer teaching tourists how to spot authentic Native art and dispelling myths and misinformation they have learned along their trip. I work as a guide for our visitors. I also have a small business using our traditional plants. I answer questions all summer long. “How do you grow a totem pole? Do you live in an igloo in the winter? How close can we get to the bears? What elevation are we at? What’s the name of that lake the whales are in? Can I touch your hair? But where are your people really from? Are you a shaman? When does the ocean freeze? You are very articulate for a Native, where did you learn English? Where are the Russians? Do you speak Russian? Can you see Russia from here? Why can’t you tell me about the Russian heritage here, are you racist? Do you have grocery stores?” And more… I do my best to be polite as possible, but some days are difficult especially after four or five months of the same questions.
Selling authentic Alaska Native art and teaching visitors about it helps to dispel the myths and misinformation our visitors learn about Alaska. Identifying authentic art can be difficult. We have a couple of programs in the state to help with that but not all of us sign up for the programs. There is the Silver Hand Program through the State of Alaska. The State of Alaska’s website states “The Silver Hand program helps Alaska Native artists promote their work in the marketplace and enables consumers to identify and purchase authentic Alaska Native art. The seal indicates that the artwork on which it appears is created by hand in Alaska by an individual Alaska Native artist. Only original contemporary and traditional Alaska Native artwork, not reproductions or manufactured work, may be identified and marketed with the Silver Hand seal. The Silver Hand image is protected under Alaska trademark statute and regulation and may only be used by individuals or organizations with Alaska State Council on the Arts’ explicit written permission.”
This of course does not cover modern art that is being mass produced by Alaska Native people themselves or Alaska Native people living out of state. Tlingit and Haida also has a Certified Tribal Artist Program. Their website states, “The Certified Tribal Artist (CTA) program was developed in response to a resolution adopted by the Tribal Assembly in 2014 to certify tribally-enrolled artists who reside in and outside of Alaska.”
We can’t prevent or educate all of the ignorance but we can do a few things to help. Shop owners could help by selling more authentic Alaska Native art instead of the cheap knock-offs from Indonesia. Gunalchéesh to those that do. More Alaska Native people could sign up for the artist programs. More people working in the tourist industry could take the time to learn more about our complex and diverse Alaska Native cultures. One day training isn’t enough. I definitely don’t have all of the solutions for any of this. I only have suggestions and concerns. The tourists are coming and I’m trying my best to prepare.
State of Alaska Silver Hand Program
Tlingit and Haida Tribal Certified Artist Program
Alaska Cultural Host Tourism Training
Civilized Lingíts still fight the Dleit Káa
invasion. The Dleit Káa come in on ships
bigger than Haida war canoes. They scour
our towns in buses bigger than war canoes
and stop to shoot us
with their cameras. They shoot at us
with questions. Some even shoot at us
with “Where are all the real Native Americans?”
because you know they gotta be politically correct,
and if we told them we were Lingít, they would
respond with “A Kling-what?”
But we are intelligent Kling-whats
and have learned to use their language as a weapon
because language is a tool and every tool is
a weapon if you hold it right.
And we hide by wearing Dleit Káa camouflage:
Nike shoes and Adidas jackets.
And when they see through our camouflage
they shoot at us
with questions about our land, about our home
as they look out on the ocean
and shoot at us with “What elevation are we at?”
But stupidity is a wasted battle
and we choose to walk away instead.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ shares the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott.