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Alaska House: Traditional Craft of Alaska’s Native Peoples

Jun 29, 2010

by alaskahouseny

Alaska House is a New York-based non-profit arts and cultural organization that supports Alaskan Native craftspeople. The group was created to share and support the rich history of traditional Alaskan artists, as well as to educate the public about the issues facing the Native peoples’ culture. Here’s Alice Rogoff, the founder of Alaska House.

In March 2002 I spent a week traveling along the 1,150-mile-long trail of the famed Iditarod dog sled race. On my trip I met extraordinarily talented, charming and graceful Alaska Native people whose warm welcome compelled me to return to Alaska again and again. From the Interior and Yukon River delta to the Bering Sea, I came to know and treasure Alaska Native art, which is made of subsistence byproducts such as whalebone, walrus tusk, animal skins, grass, and bark.

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Basket by Daisy Demientieff of the Athabascan

Unfortunately, as life in rural Alaska becomes more difficult due to climate change and an increasingly high cost of living, the people’s cultural ties and traditions are strained by the lure of employment in urban areas. With these concerns in mind I founded the Alaska Native Arts Foundation (ANAF) in 2002, creating an economic lifeline between rural Alaska and urban America. In September 2008, we furthered the mission of ANAF by opening its sister organization, Alaska House, New York in Soho, in order to bring the incredible Alaska Native creativity to the international art world.

We represent over 200 Alaska Native artists. Among them are whale bone carvers, skin sewers, basket weavers, photographers, painters and jewelry artists. We even have an Athabascan Indian artist, named Selina Alexander, who can stitch a purse out of a moose heart. A trip to our gallery gives you a true sense of the intelligence, ingenuity and creativity of Alaska Native peoples and of the artists’ intimate relationship with their environment.

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Baleen Basket by Sheldon Bogenrife of the Inupiat

Sheldon Bogenrife is a master baleen basket weaver. Baleen is a filtering structure in the mouths of most whales used for feeding on small fish and plankton. Despite the challenges of working with such rigid material, Sheldon’s baskets are known for the meticulously symmetrical, tight weave. Bogenrife is an Inupiat from the northern village of Wainright, Alaska. His basket weaving skills were fine-tuned with help from masters Elaine Frankson from Point Hope and Greg Tagarook from Wainright, and he plans to pass his skill on to his daughter someday.

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Walrus intestine raincoat by Christina Alowa of the St. Lawrence Island Yupik

Christina Alowa is a Yup’ik seamstress from St. Lawrence Island. Alowa is renowned for creating contemporary clothing and accessories using traditional materials. Her seal skin bomber jackets and walrus intestine water resistant pullovers are perfect examples of how one might create unique and contemporary wearables without abandoning traditional subsistence practices. Alowa is one of the last remaining women on St. Lawrence Island who can split the thick hide of a walrus into layers!

Values like reusing, minimizing waste and eating local are an integral part of Alaska Native culture and are reflected in Alaska Native artwork. While the local food movement is a new phenomenon in New York City, Alaska Natives have been practicing the trend for thousands of years!

The Alaska Native art market is very new, sometimes making it difficult to put a price on the artwork. How do you price a willow root basket that took three years to weave and was created by one of the last women in the world who is skilled in the art form? Also, because most of the materials are hunted and gathered you have to consider the time put into the hunting or gathering trip and the cost of transportation. A boat trip to gather willow root or to hunt moose or walrus can require as much as $1,000 in fuel — this cost has to be reflected in the price of the artwork.

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Seal Poke by Truman Kava of the St. Lawrence Island Yupik

When selling artwork that incorporates animal products like fur and walrus ivory it is important to inform the public on the origin of the work so that people are not offended by the use of animal products in clothing, jewelry and artwork.

Overall, being the first gallery in the lower 48 States to exclusively represent Alaska Native artists has had its challenges but we’ve had some very encouraging sales in the last few months which are signs of a growing appreciation for this extraordinary work.

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Kayaker with Seal and Poke by Lenwood Saccheus of the Inupiaq

Many of our artists are using traditional techniques and materials to create contemporary art and wearables, like the seal skin bomber jacket mentioned above. We also see the opposite — the use of contemporary materials like metal, blown glass and bronze — to create more traditional pieces like dance masks. The future of handmade and traditional crafts will continue to follow this trend. As long as our society continues to invest in our traditional artisans, younger generations will see the value in it and choose to learn the crafts as well. The online marketplace is ideal because it allows artists to reach out to a broad audience of consumers who value handmade and traditional crafts.

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Beaded Moose Heart Bag by Selina Alexander of the Athabascan

Go to Alaska House’s website to view the excellent documentary When The Season Is Good, which profiles some of the Native Peoples artists Alaska House represents.

Warning: The video contains graphic footage. Alaska Natives traditionally hunt, fish and gather for subsistence or survival purposes. Every single part of the animal is valued and used for food, tools, clothing and spiritual purposes. Alaska Natives are the only people in the United States who are allowed to hunt marine mammals because of the cultural values that have been in place for thousands of years. These cultural values require Alaska Natives to hunt with respect, take only what they need and to never waste any part of an animal.

Craftivism | Shop Local Alaska | Posts About History

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90 comments

  • tomokotahara

    tomokotahara said 8 years ago

    I was thinking about northern native people's art in this morning - what a coincidence.

  • Slowshirts

    Slowshirts said 8 years ago

    Nice feature, beautiful work.

  • papercutworks

    papercutworks said 8 years ago

    Amazing content in this article... I appreciate the author's comments about educating art buyers about the relationship of Native Alaskans to hunting and traditions surrounding those acts. The purse stitched out of a moose heart is definitely intriguing, & the bladder bag example pictured here gives a good idea of what the heart one might look like. Thank you for sharing & best of luck with your organization!

  • weirdwolf Admin

    weirdwolf said 8 years ago

    Such incredible work... Don't forget to check out the link above to the wonderful documentary When The Season Is Good.

  • candacejean

    candacejean said 8 years ago

    Very neat story! Most people would never be able to see creations like this, so it's wonderful that they are made available. Does Alaska House work like a traditional gallery with things like "solo shows" or "group exhibits"? Or is it more like a fair-trade boutique? I'm curious as to how the mechanics of it work.. artists send in their things and receive a portion of sales after an item is priced and sold? Or?? Maybe I'll just go to the website. ;)

  • TipsyTimeMachine

    TipsyTimeMachine said 8 years ago

    Interesting article, I am not familiar with Alaskan native art. Manitoba has a large population of native peoples and I have seen a variety of work from painting to birch bark biting at craft shows and local galleries. The Winnipeg Art Gallery has one of the largest collections of Inuit soapstone art in the world.

  • miznovember

    miznovember said 8 years ago

    Great post. I have a painting that a friend brought back to me from Alaska back in high school. I love how the people of Alaska are so in touch with the earth.

  • Ayca

    Ayca said 8 years ago

    Great article!Thanks for sharing these beauties :)

  • twigsandheather

    twigsandheather said 8 years ago

    These works of art are so beautiful and incredibly well made. Great article.

  • FavreBijoux

    FavreBijoux said 8 years ago

    Fabulous! Etsy at it's best. Thanks.

  • Creativewithclay

    Creativewithclay said 8 years ago

    Great article

  • RetroEyewear

    RetroEyewear said 8 years ago

    that is super interesting!!

  • AdroitJewelers

    AdroitJewelers said 8 years ago

    Interesting article! Great finds!

  • thecablecompany

    thecablecompany said 8 years ago

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing. It's so nice to see some traditional native art on here. Much respect.

  • CrystalCreek

    CrystalCreek said 8 years ago

    What a fantastic & informative article! I have loved & collected Alaskan native Indian & Native American art & collectibles for over 30 years & have recently started to list some in our shop ,we have a wonderful Alaskan Eskimo Ceremonial Rattle listed http://www.etsy.com/listing/26887586/alaskan-eskimo-sun-ceremonial-rattle along with other Native American items! I am thrilled to know about ANAF & Alaska House,I Think that you are a amazing Person with a loving & caring heart!

  • EdgeInspired

    EdgeInspired said 8 years ago

    Such an interesting article - thanks for sharing these beautiful finds :)

  • delectabledenim

    delectabledenim said 8 years ago

    amazing article!! :) and excellent for some of my students who are currently researching such cultures - great timing Etsy! :)

  • bbbennyandthejet

    bbbennyandthejet said 8 years ago

    So stunning! That baleen basket blows my mind.. truly gorgeous handmade items here with such a rich history.

  • SEOWebDesign

    SEOWebDesign said 8 years ago

    Wow! Really gorgeous Native arts and crafts from Alaska. I am glad to see that the traditional crafts have been preserved and are still in use. The jewelry and leather work is so intricate. Great article.

  • AutumnLeavesJewelry

    AutumnLeavesJewelry said 8 years ago

    Eyak checking in, my great grandmother was full Eyak, (If you are from Alaska you may know of this fading tribe) Nice to see Native Americans (or their art) represented. Other grandmother Santee Sioux, love my heritage, this is a nice collection...

  • RedfordGlassStudio

    RedfordGlassStudio said 8 years ago

    I have a small collection of Inuit art that I cherish. This is Art at it's finest, beautifully made with meaning and feeling. Thanks for the article.

  • trinlayk

    trinlayk said 8 years ago

    <3 beautiful!

  • birchbeerboutique

    birchbeerboutique said 8 years ago

    amazing job etsy! i'm thankful that native american artists are receiving some exposure and proper representation here. i am sometimes disappointed by the under-representation of authentic works by native peoples and rather stark examples of cultural expropriation by folks "inspired" by the various cultures. i would love to see a shift in the market place that supports the originals more openly. penelope bridge, innu nation.

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts said 8 years ago

    Interesting article! Beautiful basket and gourd vessel!

  • DreamLifePaintings

    DreamLifePaintings said 8 years ago

    inspiring. thank you for sharing.

  • WickedMessenger

    WickedMessenger said 8 years ago

    Stunning work-- that baleen basket is amazing. I've handled baleen before so I can't even figure out how someone could utilize it like that!

  • SimpleJoysPaperie

    SimpleJoysPaperie said 8 years ago

    Thank you for the informative article about Alaskan Native art. You are to be commended for founding ANAF.

  • LuRuUniques

    LuRuUniques said 8 years ago

    What an interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

  • jillatay

    jillatay said 8 years ago

    I've always drawn inspiration from the art of the people of the far north. In spite of the harsh environment, they seem to have a gentle quality that I love and admire. Thanks for bringing attention to this magical genre.

  • DotD

    DotD said 8 years ago

    Enjoyed your blog and love your items, but how do we buy them....no listings on your website.

  • TeenAngster

    TeenAngster said 8 years ago

    Beautiful! I love the native crafts. That little seal - amazing!

  • poplovedesigns

    poplovedesigns said 8 years ago

    the seal poke is wonderfully odd! <3 Andrea

  • buttonarcade

    buttonarcade said 8 years ago

    Thank you so much for this! I am originally from Alaska (born in the Western village of Bethel), and the Natives' art had a huge influence on my crafting, as a child and beyond. I still have my childhood Mukluks, and the beading is incredible! Thank you for sharing these beauties with the rest of the World!

  • jewellerytreasures

    jewellerytreasures said 8 years ago

    interesting read love the basket by daisy

  • blueskyclouds

    blueskyclouds said 8 years ago

    Very informative!

  • ArtisticIntentions

    ArtisticIntentions said 8 years ago

    Beautiful things!

  • porcherc

    porcherc said 8 years ago

    Wow ... what an education in appreciation of native arts. Beautiful and informative!

  • simplyworn

    simplyworn said 8 years ago

    interesting...and beautiful work!

  • bayousalvage

    bayousalvage said 8 years ago

    christina alowa's work is nothing short of amazing

  • akcArt

    akcArt said 8 years ago

    Beautiful items!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 8 years ago

    What a fabulous collection from truly awe-inspiring artists. Like someone commented above, it's nice to see traditional items crafted by the people who have ALWAYS made them, rather than by people who are simply "inspired" by someone else's culture.

  • WoodPigeon

    WoodPigeon said 8 years ago

    Love the basket with the polar bear sticking out!

  • NakedBeautyJewelry

    NakedBeautyJewelry said 8 years ago

    Wow Wow Wow, I think its so neat to see this kind of style. i don't think I have ever seen anything like these in stores. - NakedBeautyJewelry

  • NakedBeautyJewelry

    NakedBeautyJewelry said 8 years ago

    Wow Wow Wow, I think its so neat to see this kind of style. i don't think I have ever seen anything like these in stores. - NakedBeautyJewelry

  • reflectionsjewelry

    reflectionsjewelry said 8 years ago

    Nice to have a sneak peak into the lives of these artists, and how their work comes into being...amazing! I like the boat sculpture :)

  • alaskakreations

    alaskakreations said 8 years ago

    beautiful selection, thanks for including one of my items

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage said 8 years ago

    Native artisans and their creations are an amazing treasure. Thanks for this article!!

  • bluebeeinatree

    bluebeeinatree said 8 years ago

    Check out Nasugraq (Rainy) Higby's work here on Etsy at salmonberrydreams. Great native artist. I love the way she takes very traditional materials and turns them into something fresh and new.

  • BettyTurbo

    BettyTurbo said 8 years ago

    alaskan-grown etsy seller here, thrilled to see this article. what amazing work! thank you!

  • recycledwares

    recycledwares said 8 years ago

    i really enjoy crafts that have been passed down from generation to generation.

  • BlueSeaPaintShop

    BlueSeaPaintShop said 8 years ago

    These are great pieces, truly amazing art forms! Thanks for the informative article.

  • AnnTig

    AnnTig said 8 years ago

    Interesting article! Thanks.

  • SilvermintSupplies

    SilvermintSupplies said 8 years ago

    Its really cool to read articles like that. Thanx!

  • julessabjewelry

    julessabjewelry said 8 years ago

    Wow! Absolutely amazing! I love the canoe of wood with the stone carved people and creatures. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful art with us.

  • trinketsandbeaus

    trinketsandbeaus said 8 years ago

    You have created a mini-museum to share with others...thank you.

  • LuksiCreations

    LuksiCreations said 8 years ago

    they are beautiful. i am trying to get my own up to sell myself. i do a lot of Native beadwork and baskets. just not had the time with getting new regalia made for my family for pow-wows.

  • jargonhead

    jargonhead said 8 years ago

    Fantastic article. Next time I am in New York I will have to check out Alaska House. I think what you are doing is wonderful.

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations said 8 years ago

    As an archaeologist, I absolutely love this!

  • bhangtiez

    bhangtiez said 8 years ago

    Gorgeous collection of amazing art! I plan to weave baskets and/or rugs one day....these pieces inspire me!

  • AutumnJo

    AutumnJo said 8 years ago

    It is so inspiring to see traditional art on etsy. That canoe is just wonderful. Thank you for a sharing this piece of culture.

  • polkadotmagpie

    polkadotmagpie said 8 years ago

    You have written a beautiful piece. In my Native collection, I have many pieces from the Northwest Coast. My husband has wanted to do the Iditarod since he read "the cruelest miles." Wonderful finds...I want them ALL. Thanks for sharing.

  • animalsandicons

    animalsandicons said 8 years ago

    Amazing creations by amazing crafters!

  • aistheta

    aistheta said 8 years ago

    Thank you for promoting this wonderful work. I have always loved traditional west coast native art. It is great to see that it is being incorporated in contemporary work.

  • AvalonJewelry

    AvalonJewelry said 8 years ago

    You are keeping the native and tribal alive in all of us!!!! Please keep this up! We cannot live with people who remind us of such beauty!

  • BabbidgePatch

    BabbidgePatch said 8 years ago

    love the article and crafts represented! I'm infatuated with Alaska, even more now that I've visited!

  • goingplaces2

    goingplaces2 said 8 years ago

    Kayaker with seals is perfection. The walrus intestine raincoat amazing. Really interesting. Thanks for featuring things the majority of us have never seen.

  • FabricFascination

    FabricFascination said 8 years ago

    I grew up in Alaska, in fact my Mom and sister and her family still live there. Very interesting article and great artifacts.

  • chenzi

    chenzi said 8 years ago

    interesting article and great pictures.

  • ohbabydotcom

    ohbabydotcom said 8 years ago

    Great article. Lovely items : )

  • sherbetwithsprinkles

    sherbetwithsprinkles said 8 years ago

    What dedication! The craftmanship is amazing and inspiring!

  • muchuanlin

    muchuanlin said 8 years ago

    www.magnets-fasts.com beautiful selection, thanks for including one of my items

  • LauraJer

    LauraJer said 8 years ago

    This is so heartening to read and such beautiful products. To craft such things is so wonderful for the communities and that they take time to produce quality natural products is just fantastic. I'm always look for gorgeous natural products and was lucky enough to find this site http://woodentoygallery.co.uk but they don't have anything like these. I especially love the raincoat although I would have to get used to wearing intestines!

  • PDXfabricdeli

    PDXfabricdeli said 8 years ago

    Awsome artwork!! I love this baleen basket.

  • DestinyAccessory

    DestinyAccessory said 8 years ago

    awesome!

  • akcopperraven

    akcopperraven said 7 years ago

    just visited the Alaska House website highlighted above...WOW...what a ssuperb representation of the srt available to the world...amazing pieces!! Having just visited my hometown of fairbanks, alaska...it is wonderful to see there is outlet here on the east coast...thank you for sharing !!

  • hfmade

    hfmade said 7 years ago

    Gwe! Greetings! Thanks so much for the exposure; it's an honor to be included with such esteemed and talented artisans! Welalin, (Thank You,), Monica 'Little Flower'

  • hfmade

    hfmade said 7 years ago

    Gwe, Tara...I am a self-taught graphic, and Native crafts artist. I learned what I do simply by doing it! I have been drawing since very young, with no formal training. It wasn't until I became involved in my ancestry, (Metis'--Micmac/French), that I started doing Native crafts. I specialize in Northeastern Woodland art, specifically the art of my ancestors, the Mi'Kmaq, (Micmac). I am also a Traditional Dancer, and participate in area Pow-wows when I can. I wear traditional Mi'Kmaq regalia, a style of clothing dating back to the mid-to-late 1600's, all my handiwork...Welalin, (Thank You), Monica 'Little Flower'

  • sarahfinabeads

    sarahfinabeads said 7 years ago

    this touches a special place in my heart!

  • galeriaVarte

    galeriaVarte said 7 years ago

    Very nice.

  • GalleonGal

    GalleonGal said 7 years ago

    Amazing artwork and clothing of this Native people

  • DreamsKingdom

    DreamsKingdom said 7 years ago

    so touching, so nice

  • luckywalnut

    luckywalnut said 7 years ago

    I just visited Alaska last summer!! I would love to return someday. The native peoples are so kind and their artwork is breathtaking! This is a great foundation with a wonderful cause! I wish only the best for success in the future! :) Ps: i can't wait to go to the gallery in SoHo next time in in the city!

  • KinkadeKollection

    KinkadeKollection said 7 years ago

    My mother lives in Wasilla, AK. I've stayed for summers and I LOVE their art shows in Anchorage! It is SO unique and natural! Something I just don't find much of here in St. Louis. Alaska is a gorgeous place that has its own spirit! Everyone should have a trip to Alaska on their "Bucket List."

  • OldSchoolTools

    OldSchoolTools said 7 years ago

    Wonderful to see traditional Alaskan arts and crafts represented on Etsy! Amazing pieces...the walrus-gut raincoat is spectacular (I've never seen one outside of a museum before, and didn't think anyone still made them!) Thanks for a great article, and best of luck...

  • audreytolove

    audreytolove said 7 years ago

    wonderful work!

  • art4ear

    art4ear said 7 years ago

    I've spent a long time at the Alaska House website enjoying every amazing bit of it!

  • WhisperingOak

    WhisperingOak said 7 years ago

    Everything pictured here is beautiful

  • GreenNotion

    GreenNotion said 7 years ago

    I married Quinn the eskimo... ever since I have always been drawn to this type of art. How beautiful. Thank you for including the information about hunting and how they value all parts of the animal <3

  • starrysmile51

    starrysmile51 said 7 years ago

    Gregg Tagarook, master baleen maker from Wainwright, was my great-grandfather. His work was and is as tight and symmetrical as it gets. I'm glad to see that Sheldon was able to learn from him before he passed and is looking forward to passing down the art in turn. I have one of Gregg's baleen baskets; it's priceless to me.

  • URL said 4 years ago

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