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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.