Charles Skultka Jr. teaches formline design during a Sitka High School class supported by the Sitka Native Education Program and Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Charles Skultka Jr. teaches formline design during a Sitka High School class supported by the Sitka Native Education Program and Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Resilient Peoples and Place: Celebrating and supporting Southeast Alaska’s growing arts economy

Thousands of artists, tens of millions of dollars annually, generations of passing on traditions.

Our beautiful region is, perhaps unsurprisingly, full of artists. In 2014, Southeast Conference reported that artists are 2.6 times more prevalent in Southeast Alaska than the rest of the United States as a whole. At the time of the study, there were over 2,300 full-time and part-time artists with earnings of $29.9 million — nearly twice the size of the regional timber industry, marking a shift in cultural economic priority. In 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported the arts and culture sector contributed just under $1.38 billion and 11,180 jobs to Alaska’s overall economy — a 13% growth in revenue and 5% growth in jobs in a single year.

Despite our burgeoning creative economy, the arts are often cast off as non-lucrative disciplines to young professionals making critical decisions about their lives and careers. The threat of the “starving artist” continues to pass on generationally and economic contributions of the arts sector are often overshadowed by political focus on tourism, fisheries, and other economic sectors.

Spruce Root, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Sealaska and Oweesta partner on a market for Indigenous vendors at Sealaska Plaza in downtown Juneau. (Photo by Ḵaa Yahaayí Shkalneegi Muriel Reid)

Spruce Root, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Sealaska and Oweesta partner on a market for Indigenous vendors at Sealaska Plaza in downtown Juneau. (Photo by Ḵaa Yahaayí Shkalneegi Muriel Reid)

Yet in Southeast Alaska art has been an honored pathway for thousands and thousands of years. This region is rich with creative potential with our access to unique natural resources and strong cultural identity. Although making a living in the arts does not come without its challenges including market competition, resource management and regulations, housing and more.

Individuals and organizations like Spruce Root (a community development financial institution), Sealaska Heritage Institute, tribal governments, local schools and universities, culture bearers, and more — are stepping up to the challenge with educational opportunities, resources and cultural preservation efforts.

What is the Arts Economy?

Today art in Southeast includes traditional mediums like painting, carving, weaving, beading, drawing and sculpture, as well as other creative industries like photography, graphic arts, music, writing, film and playwriting. When it comes to understanding the full scope of the arts economy, people often focus on the role of independent artists in teaching, freelancing and selling, but overlook opportunities in arts organizations and beyond. Southeast Alaska is home to a rich array of art institutions including nonprofits, museums, art galleries and schools.

Spruce Root, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Sealaska and Oweesta partner on a market for Indigenous vendors at Sealaska Plaza in downtown Juneau. (Photo by Ḵaa Yahaayí Shkalneegi Muriel Reid)

Spruce Root, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Sealaska and Oweesta partner on a market for Indigenous vendors at Sealaska Plaza in downtown Juneau. (Photo by Ḵaa Yahaayí Shkalneegi Muriel Reid)

In 2022, nonprofit arts/culture organizations and their audiences nationally generated a total of $151.7 billion in economic activity with $73.3 billion in spending by the organizations on events. In Southeast, that includes everything from artist markets like those that Sealaska hosts to Aak’w Rock, an Indigenous music festival presented by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.

Even our own partnership, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, which is a regional collective impact network, has a robust team of creatives that work in journalism, photography, graphic design, videography and more while supporting interns throughout the year. SSP is one of many institutions that offer communications internships through Sealaska, a for-profit Native corporation, with more than 20% of Sealaska’s internships being communications focused or related with applications due Jan. 22, 2024. Currently, the Department of Labor is predicting a 4% growth in the communications field through 2028, and tribal entities, nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies and more throughout Southeast Alaska are seeking professional communications employees.

The arts economy is broad and also extends to opportunities in the visitor sector, public art (think the new Kootéeyaa Deiyí Totem trail in Juneau), and more.

What are Challenges Facing Southeast Alaskan Artists?

Southeast Alaska boasts globally unique natural resources, such as our ancient cedar trees, spruce roots, sea otters and more. When combined with our unique cultural ingenuity, our region boasts a globally revered and sophisticated arts legacy. A leader in Northwest Coast (NWC) Arts, Southeast Alaska is uniquely positioned to support artists. However, local artists, especially those early in their careers, are still facing challenges.

Charles Skultka Jr. teaches formline design during a Sitka High School class supported by Sitka Native Education Program and Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Charles Skultka Jr. teaches formline design during a Sitka High School class supported by Sitka Native Education Program and Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Charles Skultka Jr. is an educator at Sitka High School who offers Pacific Northwest Coast design classes with support from the Sitka Native Education Program and Sealaska Heritage Institute. As a Haida man, Skultka Jr. for many years has been teaching traditional arts and culture classes for the Sitka Native Education Program, integrating Alaska Native arts and culture into schools with other teachers through Sitka’s Arts, Culture and Technology programs. Skultka Jr., being someone who integrates art in many spaces, sees the career potential in the arts.

“There’s a definite career pathway to being an Indigenous artist. When you travel Southeast you can tell there’s a tourist boom going on and somebody needs to supply these visitors with original artwork. There’s absolutely no reason that we’re not training these kids and building that workforce now,” says Skultka Jr. “There’s all kinds of opportunities right now to enter the workforce through becoming an educator, becoming a graphic designer and more. Jobs that we’d like to see filled by local Alaska Natives instead of bringing people in from outside — it just makes sense to create opportunities for kids to stay in their hometowns and make a living wage.”

When asked what the challenges are for young people pursuing the arts, Skulkta Jr. reminds us that the impediments to young artists are holistic regional challenges faced by nearly every industry.

“Oh, man, our biggest challenge right now is affordable housing. Local affordable housing and a living wage. Somehow we have to employ these kids or give them a kickstart so they can afford to produce art in the first place.” Real estate and property in Alaska are limited and expensive, and create additional barriers for artists looking to afford retail space.

Skweit Jessie Morgan, a “Business Basics for Artists” participant, shares her business plan ideas with peers to workshop. (Photo by Shaelene Grace Moler)

Skweit Jessie Morgan, a “Business Basics for Artists” participant, shares her business plan ideas with peers to workshop. (Photo by Shaelene Grace Moler)

In a “Business Basics for Artists” class hosted by Chilkoot Indian Association in Haines and Spruce Root, participants talked about the values of a triple-bottom-line business model and the challenges that artists in our region face. From beadwork, to carving, to fur sewing, many types of artists were represented in this space.

In discussing the purpose of a triple-bottom-line model, Marc Wheeler, who is the program manager of technical assistance, said, “You also measure the environmental impact and the community impact. So not only is this business making a profit, but it’s also impacting the community by providing jobs, providing intergenerational connections, providing a space to gather, and providing education.” The arts are a perfect example of businesses that give back to communities culturally, educationally, and economically by supporting local supply chains and embracing creative and cultural work by the people who live there. Supporting the arts can in turn, support community well-being and the unique quality of life that keeps many of us here.

Of the challenges discussed, there was heavy emphasis on fake “authentic Alaskan” art and longstanding appropriation by tour companies coming in just for the summer competing with authentic Alaska-made businesses. In mid 2023 there were proposed amendments to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA), which is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Native art and craft products within the U.S.

The most problematic of the draft revisions aimed to expand the definition of “Indian Product” to allow for non-Native labor in certain situations. Products made by non-Native labor can then use a new trademark to certify that an item is an authentic Native product, even if it is created by a non-Native person, simply because it is a Native design — competing directly with Alaskan Native artists in an already challenging market. This change would allow for mass production of “authentic” Native art at a lower price point saturating the market for small businesses. As shared at the business basics class by the artists, it is already a challenge to get the asking price for their art. Many fear the implementation of this amendment will cause more harm for Alaskan Native artists. It is equally a challenge to break out of their communities and sell across the region or out of the state.

Chilkoot Indian Association’s and Spruce Root’s “Business Basics for Artists” class in Haines discusses pricing art with Izzy Haywood, Spruce Root’s program manager for events and facilitation, guiding the conversation. (Photo by Shaelene Grace Moler,)

Chilkoot Indian Association’s and Spruce Root’s “Business Basics for Artists” class in Haines discusses pricing art with Izzy Haywood, Spruce Root’s program manager for events and facilitation, guiding the conversation. (Photo by Shaelene Grace Moler,)

Additional challenges discussed include managing inventory, and meeting demand fast enough, especially considering resource scarcity with existing policies on managing resources. For example, the Marine Mammals Protection Act in which sea otter regulations are housed under limits the harvest and processing of sea otter hides exclusively to Indigenous people whose blood quantum is 25% or more. Indigenous identity, being complex as it is, is often primarily determined by a person’s social and political connections within the Indigenous community with a traced lineage and should not be reduced to a person’s blood quantum. The blood quantum requirement in harvesting and processing sea otters prohibits a huge portion of our Indigenous communities from using sea otter fur in their crafts and traditions until it is considered a “significantly altered product.”

Additionally, the disappearance of and difficult access to important cultural resources like large old-growth cedar trees, which are essential for carving canoes and totem poles alike, make growth in cultural revitalization and arts activity a challenge.

Existing Opportunities

There are many efforts in the region to address these challenges and provide better access to arts education by Sealaska and Sealaska Heritage Institute as well as other SSP partners. For example, the United States Forest Service and partners like the Alaska Youth Stewards program, Tlingit and Haida, and community forest partnerships in Hoonah, Kake and Prince of Wales Island are trying to better integrate cedar tree inventory and long-term management plans into the Tongass Forest Plan Revision — a process individuals and artists can take part in over the next few years. As part of the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, cultural-use wood is a priority, with staff identifying and cataloging trees to set aside for carving projects — to ensure the next seven generations of carvers and weavers have access.

The Alaska Youth Stewards crew on Prince of Wales Island works with the Klawock Indigenous Stewards Forest Partnership and U.S. Forest Service on inventorying large red cedars in the Tongass National Forest to provide data for long-term management of the culturally revered resource. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

The Alaska Youth Stewards crew on Prince of Wales Island works with the Klawock Indigenous Stewards Forest Partnership and U.S. Forest Service on inventorying large red cedars in the Tongass National Forest to provide data for long-term management of the culturally revered resource. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

“I believe that tree management is of paramount importance for the future of Indigenous culture and arts to continue into the time of the seventh generation of our grandchildren to enjoy the world of creativity with old-growth timber — whose days seem to be numbered at the present pace of deforestation,” says Master Lingít Carver Wayne Price. He has been a major advocate for protecting the “standtalls,” the massive red cedar trees that are needed to carve totem poles, canoes and other cultural art pieces. His work as an advocate has been an inspiration to the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, and his work as a carver nationally renowned focusing on healing canoes and totems dedicated to Indigenous people lost to substance abuse.

The arts are also greatly supported by many organizations: nonprofit and for-profit alike. The Box of Treasures Program is a partnership between Sealaska Heritage Institute and the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), and their partner communities Klawock, Sitka and Juneau that teaches Northwest Coast (NWC) art by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples. This program offers dual-credit options to further develop NWC Arts Career Pathways for high school students.

Also, in SHI’s partnership with UAS, they developed and now offer an associate of arts degree with an emphasis on NWC arts. This undergraduate program offered in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka offers a wide variety of classes from toolmaking to design including classes in basketry, formline design, carving, weaving and more. There is movement to establish a four-year degree track through UAS and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in NWC arts.

The Alaska Youth Stewards crew on Prince of Wales Island works with the Klawock Indigenous Stewards Forest Partnership and U.S. Forest Service on inventorying large red cedars in the Tongass National Forest to provide data for long-term management of the culturally revered resource. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

The Alaska Youth Stewards crew on Prince of Wales Island works with the Klawock Indigenous Stewards Forest Partnership and U.S. Forest Service on inventorying large red cedars in the Tongass National Forest to provide data for long-term management of the culturally revered resource. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Sealaska Heritage Institute’s vision is to train new Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian artists, teach Indigenous art in schools, educate the public on art and expand the art market, and integrate Indigenous art in public spaces, designating Indigenous art as a national treasure opening up many career opportunities for our people. Beyond SHI’s direct offerings, there are community efforts throughout the region to deliver classes in the arts such as the Rocky Pass Tannery in Kake which teaches fur sewing and tanning often supplying local artists with furs as well. Classes like these are often funded by Sealaska Heritage Institute, Tlingit and Haida and local tribal entities throughout the region.

These programs better equip artists and school teachers of NWC arts to discuss career pathways in the arts with youth across our communities. Skultka Jr., who spent over 19 years working with countless youth in the arts, sees opportunities in growing impact. “Place-based learning and culture combined in the classroom, just helps grow better humans. We get to instill our cultural values and enhance our art and culture regionally. I usually focus on working with students, but lately I’ve been really toying with the idea of starting to educate educators just to make a bigger impact,” says Skultka Jr.

The Alaska Youth Stewards crew on Prince of Wales Island works with the Klawock Indigenous Stewards Forest Partnership and U.S. Forest Service on inventorying large red cedars in the Tongass National Forest to provide data for long-term management of the culturally revered resource. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

The Alaska Youth Stewards crew on Prince of Wales Island works with the Klawock Indigenous Stewards Forest Partnership and U.S. Forest Service on inventorying large red cedars in the Tongass National Forest to provide data for long-term management of the culturally revered resource. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Currently, Spruce Root is working to support the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s summer arts camp, facilitating networking opportunities between youth and professional Southeast Alaskan artists. Together, SHI and Spruce Root help young Southeast Alaskans better recognize the value of creativity and show how they can build a career in the arts by connecting them with working artists, visiting Indigenous public art installations, and through work-readiness and soft skills training.

At the Spruce Root “Business Basics for Artists” class in Haines, Tlingit artist Skweit Jessie Morgan, shared about how important it is to have art that reflects the communities and cultures that occupy the region, “There’s a lot of monuments in town that I just don’t connect to, that don’t resonate with what I grew up with — the knowledge that comes from attending potlatches or just being in community. There’s people out there making artwork that are a reflection of us, that are in these spaces and are spending time in our community giving back.”

With 1% of public project funding going to art, these communities with their complex histories and cultures would be best served by integrating public art that prioritizes local artists and reflects the people of this place. This is a growing opportunity in Southeast Alaska.

Master carver Wayne Price, seen here working, has expressed concerns about the sustainability of massive red cedar trees on the Tongass. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Master carver Wayne Price, seen here working, has expressed concerns about the sustainability of massive red cedar trees on the Tongass. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

In 2024, in addition to financing and one-on-one business coaching, Spruce Root also plans to offer two virtual “Business Basics for Artists” classes in collaboration with Sealaska Heritage Institute in late January and autumn. Marc Wheeler shares, “We want to build a community of artists first and foremost. During workshops, artists connect across communities and get to know each other on a personal level, providing secrets and much-needed support for one another.”

More than an Economic Booster

The arts are also key in fostering and maintaining our connections with one another and our home region. Traditional art practices are important in transferring knowledge and history, developing relationships across generations through mentorship and education, is a primary attraction in the tourism industry, and provides a fulfilling career pathway that can either become a person’s main career or supplement their income. In Southeast Alaskan communities where Alaska Native art is the dominant art form, art provides an important income stream for many Alaskan Natives.

Art, in many ways, serves as a reflection of who we are and where we come from. It can cultivate community pride while teaching many important values in life such as patience, limitations, healthy processing, healing, emotional regulation and more while providing fulfilling careers for Southeast Alaskans. When we support the arts, we are investing in both economic and community well-being.

Master Lingít Carver Wayne Price and former University of Alaska student Andrea Cook hold masks done in Price’s university class. Price works to protect the “standtalls,” the massive red cedar trees that are needed to carve totem poles, canoes and other cultural art pieces he sees as integral to a strong future in the arts. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Master Lingít Carver Wayne Price and former University of Alaska student Andrea Cook hold masks done in Price’s university class. Price works to protect the “standtalls,” the massive red cedar trees that are needed to carve totem poles, canoes and other cultural art pieces he sees as integral to a strong future in the arts. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

“I think all people should support the arts because it’s the one thing that brings everything together — people, communities, regions. It connects us to each other and to place. Art isn’t just something that you hang on the wall, there’s all kinds of living forms with dance and music,” says Skultka Jr. who believes art makes life more vivid. “At the end of the day, without it, culture and society would be pretty dull.”

Shop local, support local. If you are interested in supporting small businesses and artists like the ones mentioned in this article, consider buying locally from the Spruce Root, Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Sealaska and Sealaska Heritage’s gift guide at https://www.spruceroot.org/giftguide. Visit spruceroot.org to learn more about business workshops and resources for artists or https://www.sealaskaheritage.org for art educational opportunities. If you are interested in becoming a Sealaska intern, or know someone who may be interested, visit https://www.sealaska.com/careers/summer-internships.

• Shaelene Grace Moler is a rural, Indigenous writer from Kake. She was the senior editor of Tidal Echoes and has been published in Capital Weekly, 49 Writers, Alaska Women Speak, First Alaskans Magazine, and Ravencall. She worked in storytelling and engagement for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership through a Sealaska internship for two years before joining Spruce Root as a fellow and First Alaskans Institute. The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Juneau Empire.

Rocky Pass Tannery in Kake offers classes on otter skin sewing to youth during the Keex’ Kwaan Culture Camp. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

Rocky Pass Tannery in Kake offers classes on otter skin sewing to youth during the Keex’ Kwaan Culture Camp. (Photo by Bethany Goodrich)

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