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The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: The Seeganna Family

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) Headquarters Collection features 63 artworks by members of the Seeganna family.
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Ninety-five miles west of Nome, Alaska, in the Bering Sea is King Island, home to a group of Inupiat known as Ugiuvangmiut or King Islanders. In the 1900s economic opportunities on the mainland drew many island residents to Nome. Ugiuvangmiut would winter on the island to hunt walrus and seal and leave for the mainland in the summertime to fish and sell arts and crafts to tourists. In 1959 the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the only school on King Island for fear of a rock slide. Afterwards more Ugiuvangmiut moved to Nome but maintained seasonal residences on the island. Today King Island is considered uninhabited, but the community is recognized as a distinct Alaska Native village corporation with 206 shareholders.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) Headquarters Collection features 63 artworks by members of the Seeganna family, who are Ugiuvangmiut. Although known primarily as carvers, members of the Seeganna family have worked in a variety of media, including woodcut prints, jewelry, and metalwork, as well as ivory and wood sculpture. Some of the Seeganna family worked for the IACB in Alaska, and others participated in regional Native artist cooperatives. The Headquarters Collection includes works by Louis Seeganna (1916–74) and his sons—Bellarmine, Peter, Richard, and Stanley.

Louis Seeganna (Ugiuvangmiut Inupiaq, 1916–74), Standing Walrus. 1968. Driftwood, baleen, ivory; 35 x 10 cm. Acquired by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives when the artist was employed as an IACB arts and crafts assistant at Sitka, Alaska. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/6097

Louis Seeganna and his wife Margaret (1914–99), an Inupiaq originally from Big Diomede, in the Bering Strait, raised eight children on King Island and in Nome. Along with hunting and fishing, Louis created carvings in ivory and wood. In 1969 the IACB purchased Standing Walrus [25/6097] by Louis. Carved of driftwood with inlaid baleen and attached ivory tusks, the figurine stands nearly 14 inches on a circular base. The IACB received Standing Walrus from a lot of artworks made at the Sitka Demonstration Workshop. The IACB had established a demonstration workshop at Sitka, Alaska, in 1962; in 1965, the workshop was moved to a more permanent facility as part of the National Park Service Visitor Center at the Sitka National Monument. The workshop employed artists to conduct demonstrations for visitors and to train other Native artists. The facility made its carving, metalwork, and block printing equipment available to Native artists, including those not employed by the IACB.

Louis Seeganna (Ugiuvangmiut Inupiaq, 1916–74), Standing Walrus. 1968. Driftwood, baleen, ivory; 35 x 10 cm. Acquired by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives when the artist was employed as an IACB arts and crafts assistant at Sitka, Alaska. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/6097

As a teenager, the youngest son, Bellarmine Seeganna (1953–2002), created a woodcut print entitled Walrus during a printmaking workshop at the Native artist cooperative Sunarit Associates, Inc., in Nome in October 1969. Walrus depicts a walrus with its head above the water staring at another walrus on a nearby ice floe. Stanley Seeganna (b. 1950) also created a woodcut print at Sunarit during the same workshop. In black and brown inks, Amgnak features a woman’s face surrounded by a ring of fur from her parka.

Richard Seeganna (Ugiuvangmiut Inupiaq, b. 1949), Land Claims Dance. Fairbanks, 1973. Teak, mahogany; 25.2 x 18.5 x 40.5 cm. Purchased by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives from the Anchorage Museum of History and Art museum shop. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/5874

In 1973 Richard Seeganna (b. 1949) carved the sculpture Land Claims Dance of teak wood on a mahogany base at the Extension Center for Arts and Crafts at the University of Alaska, a partnership between the IACB and the university offering training and resources to advanced Native artists. Land Claims Dance portrays an upright dancer with one foot and arm raised in celebration of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971. ANCSA is a monumental piece of legislation whereby the members of Congress and President Richard Nixon agreed to compensate Native Alaskans for unsettled land claims. Native Alaskans received title to more than 44 million acres of land and financial compensation to be divided amongst 220 Native villages and 12 regional corporations in exchange for relinquishing title to other land. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the indigenous people never relinquished claim to the land. Although the act has been both criticized and venerated, the sculpture exhibits a moment of joy for Alaska Natives upon reaching a settlement after many years of civil protests, legal debates, and congressional hearings.

The largest number of Seeganna family artworks in the IACB Headquarters Collection—55—are by the eldest son, Peter John Seeganna (1938–74). Born in Nome, Peter was raised on King Island and would return throughout his lifetime. He was an expert ice hunter, knowledgeable about Inupiat ways of life and fluent in Iñupiaq. At the age of 23, Peter left Alaska for Oakland, California, and worked as a laborer. In 1964 he moved to Sitka to begin work as an arts and crafts assistant at the demonstration workshop. The following year he married Rebecca Mezenna (?–1983), and the couple had four children—Eugene (b. 1966), Anthony (b. 1968), Frederick (b. 1970), and Mark (b. 1971).

Peter John Seeganna (Ugiuvangmiut Inupiaq, 1938–74), starfish pin. Sitka, ca. 1964. Jade , metal jewelry findings; 4.8 x 1 cm. Purchased in 1964 from the artist by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives while he was employed during IACB arts and crafts demonstration at Sitka. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/6804

Peter was a prolific artist who became adept at working with a variety of materials and in different styles. He had no formal artistic training except for his father’s instruction in carving. In February 1964 George Fedoroff, the IACB supervisor for arts and crafts in Alaska, wrote to Paul Tiulana (1921–94), King Island artist and culture bearer, that Peter had made great progress in Sitka: “He is learning quite rapidly, and already mastered the use of all the power tools. … In March Peter will enter some of his work in the annual Alaskan Arts and Crafts Exhibition in Juneau.” Fedoroff mailed Peter’s first jade carving, an exquisite starfish pin in dark jade to the IACB.

Two months later Myles Libhart, the IACB supervisory staff curator, wrote to Fedoroff about a sculpture by Peter depicting King Island drummers and dancers in ivory on a stone base. Libhart remarked that, “this is such a stunning piece that we may keep both [versions] if we may, so that if one dance group is out on loan we will have an example in the Central Office.” Fedoroff indicated that Peter received no assistance, and the IACB headquarters office purchased both sculptures.

King Island Dancers and Drummer by Peter John Seeganna: Peter John Seeganna (Ugiuvangmiut Inupiaq, 1938–74), King Island dancers and drummer (second interpretation). Sitka, ca. 1964. Ivory, paint, stone; 15.2 x 14.2 x 8.2 cm and 18.7 x 14 x 7.7 cm. Purchased in 1964 from the artist by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives while he was employed during IACB arts and crafts demonstration at Sitka. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/9855

In September 1965 the IACB purchased 18 items of silver, jade, and wood by Peter created during his Sitka employment. By November, Peter had 12 more items for the IACB including jewelry and carvings. In 1969, the Sitka workshop submitted 28 items to the Headquarters Collection, including a gracefully abstracted polar bear carved of alder wood.

Peter John Seeganna (Ugiuvangmiut Inupiaq, 1938–74), polar bear. Sitka, 1964–66. Alder, 18.7 x 7.5 x 12 cm. Acquired by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives between 1964 and 1966 when the artist was employed as an IACB arts and crafts assistant at Sitka. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/6970

In 1968 Peter moved back to King Island and Nome and continued to work as an IACB arts and crafts assistant. He was elected president of the King Island Village Council and served on the Nome School Board as well. Peter relocated to Anchorage in 1973; he continued his employment with the IACB and worked as the special assistant to the director of the Visual Arts Center of Alaska.

Along with creating art, Peter was vocal about issues in Native art. Carl Heinmiller, founder of Alaska Indian Arts, Inc. in Port Chilkoot, wrote to the Native Alaskan newspaper Tundra Times in 1967 about his perception of the priorities of the IACB. Heinmiller felt that the IACB had shifted its attention to contemporary art, thereby eschewing traditional art forms; the IACB should establish two separate divisions, “fine arts and primitive arts,” or he remarked, “the fine Native craftsman will become a thing of the past.” Peter, along with fellow artist Joseph Senungetuk (Inupiaq, b. 1940), responded, “Many of our contemporary ideas stem from the traditional forms. We are not inclined to be mere copyists, but favor individual creativity.” They continued, “We intend to broaden our experiences and perhaps develop new forms which may or may not identify us with a specific ethnic group—it is our choice and not Mr. Heinmiller’s or others’ who seem to want to keep us as ‘display pieces’ under the guise of ‘economic development.’” Their views were not unique; Seeganna and Senungetuk voiced opinions felt by many Native artists. Tourists regularly traveled to Alaska and boosted the economy through purchases of Native art. Sometimes artists were instructed to create works directly for the tourist market.

Peter passed away suddenly at the age of 35 during a spring hunting trip to Nome. Due to a childhood disease, Peter had a weakened heart, but he would not allow himself to forfeit Inupiat hunting and fishing activities. In the catalog for his retrospective exhibition at the Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum in 1975, Senungetuk remembered, “I went on many hunting and fishing trips with him where he refused to acknowledge his weak heart if it meant denying himself his love of the outdoors.” Senungetuk also commented on Peter’s tireless desire to help his people politically, socially, and culturally. The IACB purchased Peter's last sculpture, an abstracted form in teak wood, in 1976. In his request letter to Fedoroff, Libhart remarked that it was an innovative work and “a critical piece in presenting Peter’s development as a sculptor.”

Peter John Seeganna (Ugiuvangmiut Inupiaq, 1938–74), sculpture. Anchorage, 1973–74. Teak, 18.2 x 15.9 x 30 cm. Made while the artist worked at the Visual Arts Center of Alaska; formerly in the collection of George Fedoroff (1906–2001), an IACB sculpture instructor; purchased from Mr. Fedoroff in 1976 by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/9275

The 63 artworks by the Seeganna family in the Headquarters Collection illustrate artistic movements in Alaska after the Second World War. Federal agencies, independent businesses, and artist cooperatives bloomed throughout Alaska and offered training and resources in multiple art forms, including lapidary work and printmaking. The Seeganna family possessed an expertise in ivory and wood carving, but also ventured into woodcut prints and metalwork. In their work, they conveyed their love of the Alaskan people and environment in every possible medium.

This article was originally posted at NMAI here.

Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is part of a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Headquarters Collection at the museum.