John Waghiyi Jr., artist and whaling captain, sews a walrus hide together at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. The hide will be used for a blanket toss by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi, from Savoonga, are currently the artists-in-residence at SHI. The Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

John Waghiyi Jr., artist and whaling captain, sews a walrus hide together at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. The hide will be used for a blanket toss by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi, from Savoonga, are currently the artists-in-residence at SHI. The Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

From the far western reaches of Alaska, Yup’ik artists share their culture with Juneau

Visiting artists sew walrus blanket, will perform dances in Juneau

Yup’ik artists are visiting Sealaska Heritage Institute this week, and they brought dance and walrus skin with them from the far western reaches of Alaska.

John Waghiyi Jr. and his wife, Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi, are artists from Savoonga, which is a city on St. Lawrence Island, and through Thursday, they are artists in residence at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Building.

Wednesday, the Waghiyis will dance in the Shuka Hít clan house during a free, public event at noon. On Tuesday, John Waghiyi Jr. worked on a walrus-skin blanket outside the Soboleff building.

“If we don’t teach it, it’s going to die with us,” Waghiyi said of walrus skin sewing.

He said while some indigenous peoples of Russia practice the art form, he isn’t aware of it being done in North America outside of St. Lawrence Island.

“When I’m gone, my grandchildren may have to go to Russia to learn the art,” Waghiyi said.

John Waghiyi Jr., artist and whaling captain, sews a walrus hide together at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. The hide will be used for a blanket toss by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi, from Savoonga, are currently the artists-in-residence at SHI. the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

John Waghiyi Jr., artist and whaling captain, sews a walrus hide together at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. The hide will be used for a blanket toss by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi, from Savoonga, are currently the artists-in-residence at SHI. the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Exposure to an Alaska Native culture that isn’t common, let alone often part of Juneau’s Northwest Coast Arts-intensive scene, was a goal of bringing the Waghiyi’s to town, said SHI President Rosita Worl in an email.

[Birds, the Beatles and what happens after we die: Former Alaska State Poet Laureate talks about her new book]

“An important focus of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding and to support cultural diversity, which includes indigenous peoples from other regions of the state,” Worl said. “Additionally, SHI promotes Alaska Native arts through its exhibitions and advocacy efforts to ensure that Alaska Natives have access to the natural resources on which they depend and utilize in their arts. In this case, we also wanted to educate people about the Native use of walrus ivory to support their cultural and subsistence lifestyle, which is not endangered as are elephants. We also commissioned John to make a walrus blanket for our blanket toss to use in our traditional games.”

John Waghiyi, Jr. artist and whaling captain, talks about preparing a walrus hide as he sews a blanket at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

John Waghiyi, Jr. artist and whaling captain, talks about preparing a walrus hide as he sews a blanket at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Blanket toss is an Alaska Native game that is similar to trampoline gymnastics, but with human power and an animal skin blanket used in place of a trampoline. The blankets are also used for cultural celebrations such as whaling festivals.

Waghiyi said walrus is primarily harvested for food. He said skin and ivory are useful byproducts of that.

“Ivory is just a vessel to supplement our subsistence way,” Waghiyi said.

Worl said the Waghiyis brought her walrus maktak — a dish made of skin and blubber — which is one of her favorite foods.

The walrus skin Waghiyi was working with this week came from a walrus he and his late uncle harvested “a couple of years ago,” Waghiyi said. He said the ultimate goal for the skin was to produce an 11-foot-by-11-foot blanket from skin that’s about a half-inch thick.

John Waghiyi Jr., artist and whaling captain, sews a walrus hide together at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. The hide will be used for a blanket toss by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi, from Savoonga, are currently the artists-in-residence at SHI. the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

John Waghiyi Jr., artist and whaling captain, sews a walrus hide together at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. The hide will be used for a blanket toss by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Waghiyi and his wife, Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi, from Savoonga, are currently the artists-in-residence at SHI. the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

“For skin boat construction, for sewing, they use whale sinew from either bowhead whale or gray whale, and they braided the sinew specifically for skin boat construction,” Waghiyi said.

For his blanket Waghiyi used a synthetic thread and metal needle to pull together halves of the blanket.

John Waghiyi Jr., artist and whaling captain, uses a synthetic twine to sew a walrus hide together at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

John Waghiyi Jr., artist and whaling captain, uses a synthetic twine to sew a walrus hide together at the Walter Soboleff Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

He said he hoped to be done with the blanket by Thursday, but it took months of preparation to get the skin ready to become a blanket and once it’s done, all SHI will have to do to care for it is keep it in a cool place.

Waghiyi said sewing walrus skin is traditionally done by women, but he picked it up by being involved with skin boat construction.

Skin boats are exactly what they sound like — boats made of animal skin. Waghiyi, who was a whaling captain, said skin boats and sails have now mostly been replaced by metal skiffs, but he has sailed in skin boats.

“I’m used to working with walrus skin,” he said.

More in News

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. On Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, the top U.S. public health agency said that coronavirus can spread greater distances through the air than 6 feet, particularly in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces. But agency officials continued to say such spread is uncommon, and current social distancing guidelines still make sense. (NIAID-RML via AP)
COVID at a glance for Wednesday, Jan. 20

The most recent state and local numbers.

Sarah Palmer talks to a driver before administering a COVID-19 test in December 2020. On Tuesday, the City and Borough of Juneau reported an uptick in cases identified over the weekend that included Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  However, the community's COVID risk level remains at the moderate level, which was set last week after months with the community risk level set at high. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
COVID-19 cases tick up over holiday weekend

Two CBJ employees among those testing positive

Marine veteran Marvin Kadake, right, of the Keex’ Kwaan Dancers (People of Kake) shakes hands with Ed Kunz during the Grand Entrance for Celebration 2018 along Willoughby Avenue on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. The 2020 version of the every-other-year event had been tentatively scheduled for this summer, but those plans have been canceled, organizers announced. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Celebration 2021 canceled, organizers announce

It’s the second pandemic-related scheduling change for the event.

President Joe Biden signs his first executive order in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo / Evan Vucci)
President signals plans to halt oil activity in Arctic refuge

The plans were announced on a fact sheet by the new administration on Biden’s inauguration day.

The author's fiancee Abby navigates their boat in the fading afternoon light. Shortly after returning to the dock, an otter took up residence aboard. (Jeff Lund / For the Juneau Empire)
I Went To the Woods: Dealing with an otter squatter

I assume it’s an otter because of shell fragments in the runny excretions left in the forward stowage

Members of the Recall Dunleavy group are close to achieving their goal for signatures, with only about 20,000 signatures remaining as of Jan. 19, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file)
Recall Dunleavy group gathers steam for final push

The group has nearly reached its signature requirement.

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

White House, tribes joined to deliver Alaska Native vaccines

The initiative has treated Indigenous tribes as sovereign governments and set aside special vaccine shipments.

Most Read