Alaska Native artist shares story behind stamp
Sandra Hale Schulman
Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
A striking new stamp by Tlingit/Athabascan artist Rico Lanáat’ Worl will be issued in 2021.
It features Raven — a figure of great significance to the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast — and merges traditional and contemporary tribal design.
“Among the cultures of the region, Raven plays an essential role in many traditional tales, including stories about the creation of the world,” the Postal Service said in a release.
The design is based on a story of Raven setting free the sun, the moon and the stars, and depicts him “just as he escapes from his human family and begins to transform back into his bird form.”
Worl said it was a huge honor to be invited to participate in the project.
“I also felt the weight of needing to represent well since I was showcasing as a Tlingit artist on a national platform,” he said in a statement. “I hope that as a designer I can represent on a national scale the modernity of Native people — that we’re engaged in modern culture while still carrying forward our traditional heritage.”
There is a tribal connection as the Postal Service released a stamp showing Worl’s clan uncle, Nathan Jackson, performing a Raven dance in 1996.
The Sealaska Heritage Institute says the stamp design was originally set to be announced during Celebration 2020, one of the largest gatherings of southeast Alaska Native peoples, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19.
The organization says it’s hoping to hold a release ceremony in the coming year.
Worl, a Juneau, Alaska-based artist who does metal work as well as graphic-based design, aims to empower Indigenous artists.
“Art is kind of integral to Indigenous culture. It has always been around me. It’s always been integral to my life,” Worl said. “There is a lot of movement in this country and the world towards making space for people of color to represent their own stories … and I think this is a very big platform for that to be able to be seen in that way, so it’s exciting.”
He said most versions of the story focus on the sun and the moon, whereas his depiction highlights the stars, which shimmer around Raven and on his feathers on the stamp.
“The stamp depicts a moment of climax in one of his heists. Stealing the stars. Raven is trying to grab as many stars as he can, some stuck in his feathers and in his hands or in his beak. Some falling around him. It’s a frazzled moment of adrenaline. Partially still in human form, as depicted as his hand still being human, as he carries the stars away. I think it depicts a moment we all have experienced, the cusp of failure and accomplishment,” Worl wrote on his blog, ricoworl.com. “It’s more focused on this exciting moment of trying to pull off this heist. And I wanted to show some of that drama and excitement from the story.”
Worl said he selected this particular Tlingit story to serve as an entry point for people around the United States.
“I hope it’s sort of a gateway for more learning. I hope that they wonder, ‘Oh, what does this design mean? Where does it come from?’ And they look up the title of it and find the Raven story and then look up, ‘What is the Raven story? Who are the Tlingit people?’” he said.
Here is the story as told on Worl’s website:
Raven is the Trickster. A time ago, there were no celestial light sources. People lived in darkness. Raven heard of a chieftain who owned a collection of items of great light. Things which would light up the world. Raven decided to become a part of this household.
Raven is a Transformer. He transformed into a pine needle and the chieftain's daughter drank him in a glass of water. She became pregnant. Nine months later, she gave birth to baby raven. In the child's youth, he loved the boxes of family treasure which held the sun, the moon and the stars. He cried to play with them. He begged to play with them. With time, the grandfather could not say no any longer. Raven was allowed to play with the box of stars. Not long after, he freed the stars. Raven was in big trouble. He cried. He cried for forgiveness. After time he asked to play with the next box. Raven promised not to open the second box, but he did. The moon was free. Raven cried. He cried for forgiveness. A grandparent's love is immeasurable. He let Raven play with the box of daylight. Raven brought the sun, the moon and the stars to the universe.
This particular stamp involved collaboration between Worl and USPS Art Director Antonio Alcalá.
“(Alcalá) ran across my artwork in the National Museum of the American Indian, and he thought it lined up with some values that the USPS was trying to achieve with their stamps,” Worl said.
Worl added that he hopes to create additional art in partnership with the Postal Service.
“I do hope to create prints, pins and other associated gifts with the design if I can get a license worked out with USPS. I hope to launch those products at the same time as the stamp launch,” he wrote on his blog.
Rico Lanáat’ Worl is the founder of the Trickster Company, which strives to promote innovative Indigenous design. Instagram @ricoworl
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Grammy Museum, The Queens Museum, and has produced three films on Native musicians.
Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.