Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

PALMER, Alaska — The Alaska State Fair just wrapped up its return after a one-year break due to the pandemic.

Alaskans turned out for it in droves despite occasional rain and temperatures in the 50s. The fairgrounds are in the small town of Palmer, about an hour’s drive northeast of Anchorage, in south central Alaska.

The fair dedicates a 3-acre area to Alaska Natives. The “Gathering Place” has eight small buildings for vendors, a stage, and picnic tables. Entertainment this year included musicians, traditional dancers, athletes, and storytellers as well as a blanket toss with Eskimo Ninja Warrior Nick Hansen, Inupiaq.

That’s in addition to the monster truck shows, rodeos, carnival rides, concerts, and exhibits, all of which draw some 300,000 fair-goers annually.

That means good sales for vendors such as Sheila Ezelle, owner of Laura Wright Alaskan Parkys. Her Inupiaq grandmother started the company in 1947.

Sheila Ezell laughs as she explains that she puts a smaller hand-warmer pocket inside the big one on her parkas for people like her who always forget to grab their mittens. At the Alaska State Fair Sept. 5, 2021 (Photo from video by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today).

“I did have a store downtown for 36 years, but COVID closed it and I'm glad that it's closed cause I live out in the valley (50 miles outside Anchorage) and that's a heck of a distance to drive every day,” Ezelle said. “So, I'm now doing it out of my home. I make appointments and I do shows like the fair, AFN (Alaska Federation of Natives convention), some of the Christmas shows.”

Parkas are common winter gear in Alaska. Most are made with shells of durable fabrics such as nylon or Cordura over fur, down, or a polyester fill. One of Laura Wright’s designs is a dressy summer parka.

“I have a beautiful red velvet parky with white fox around the hood and the fancy (a tufted fur accent) on the shoulders,” Ezelle said. Prices for the summer parkas start at $130.

“This one is a man's parky. It's made out of a bull denim and the ruff, which is the fur around the hood is called a ruff, is made with beaver, wolverine and wolf. And then again, the wolf fancy on the shoulders,” Ezelle said. Prices for winter parkas start at $900.

“They’ve got big pockets because we’ve got big mittens. Inside the pockets there are little hand warmer pockets. Cause I never remember my gloves,” Ezelle said.

Amy Rogde, Dena'ina Athabascan, shows one of her sealskin hats lined with sea otter fur, one of her best-sellers. Sept. 5, 2021 at the Alaska State Fair (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today).

When asked about her best-selling item, Amy Rogde, Dena’ina Athabascan, of Dena'Ina Designs by Amy, said, “Hats. All my sea otter hats and the seal hats. I brought 40 hats with me. I've got two (left).” The hats sell in the mid to high hundreds of dollars.

“I do fur hats, mittens, slippers, ruffs (fur trim for hoods). Most of the patterns that I use are from my grandmother,” she said. Plus, “I get the furs myself.”

At another booth, Teresa Mike, Yup’ik, said, “Only the Alaska Native people are allowed to harvest (marine mammals). It's like the seal’s part of our food chain. We use the meat and the oil, and then the skin and the bones. We use them for clothing and our tools. And so this sea otter my husband hunted, and those are the ones we use everything of it.”

She described a pair of mittens made with an otter head. “We have, what I look at it, is to bring the animal (back). Cause we would have high respect for the animal that gave its life. We only take what we can use and leave the rest. We want them to flourish for our next generations so that our skills and our traditions are passed on from one generation to the next,” Mike said.

Artist Teresa Mike, Yup'ik, at Alaska State Fair, Sept. 5, 2021 holding a mitten made from a sea otter's head, and "good to 50 below." (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today).

In her jewelry, Mike uses dentalium shells, halibut “ears” (a bone from the fish’s head), ivory (from walrus tusks), walrus whiskers, fish skin, and baleen (a tough fiber from the mouths of baleen whales).

Walrus whisker earrings and other jewelry by Teresa Mike, Yup'ik, at the Alaska State Fair, Sept. 5, 2021. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today).

“Hold on a second; let me put on my new headdress,” said artist and flute player Il'jwaas Douglas Yates, Tshimshian and Haida, before a video interview. He put on an intricately woven headband with formline designs. Someone offered him a mirror.

In mock seriousness, Yates demanded, “Yes. Hold on. Give me a mirror; give me a mirror!” Then he snapped his fingers and called out, “makeup. Makeup! We gotta call together our crew here!” Yates said, laughing.

He adjusted his headdress then said, on a more serious note, “My art is an expression of my culture of who I am. It's Tsimshian and Haida. I apprenticed under a master totem carver by the name of David Boxley, probably one of the finest totem carvers in the world.”

Boxley has worked toward the revitalization and rebirth of Tsimshian arts and culture for much of his life and is renowned as a master artist.

“I apprenticed under him but, you know, I'm still learning from David. There's still many more things I don't know yet. It takes a lot to become master artists in the total culture,” Yates said.

Douglas Yates, Tsimshian, Haida, at the Alaska State Fair, Sept. 5, 2021. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today.)

Cards, prints and other lower priced items were selling well, Yates said. A few big-ticket items sold but Yates said he still had some for sale.

Chelsea Dischner, Eyak, is coordinator of the Gathering Place, which she said has “so many gems.”

“There's the salmon filleting demo with how to use an Ulu (a curved knife), and the whole fish on that grill. We have Indigenous seafood and fry bread and that kind of thing.” She said the programs educate Alaskans about the state’s Indigenous peoples.

“In combination with both the stage, the vendors themselves and our partnership with the Native Heritage Center, we provide quite a bit of information about Native culture up here, and about the different types of tribal affiliation and how our cultures vary across Alaska,” Dischner said.

“Because we do have a really wide spectrum of culture up here. Everything from the panhandle (in southeast Alaska) to the North Slope is, you know, different languages, different dances, different practices. So I think even Alaska Natives get to learn more by being in this kind of community together,” she said.

Sign for the Gathering Place at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, Sept. 5, 2021 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today).

Dischner said they've had a few unpleasant incidents this year.

“It was mockery, sort of just like the open mouth kind of just mimicking language that they didn't really understand. They were basically just trying to copy the songs, but really disrespectfully, while they (Alaska Natives) were performing.”

She said the incidents were easily handled. “You just speak to somebody and say, ‘Hey, that's, that's not an appropriate way to behave in this space and, you know, outside in the community.’ But I think that it's generally very peaceful here and we're just really eager to teach and make it an openly accessible place for people.”

Dischner wants people to know that “we're happy to teach and share what we have and that there is a lot of value to be learned about within our community when we're approached respectfully,” Dischner said.

Two pumpkins in the Alaska Giant Vegetables display. The one on the right weighs 1,065.5 lbs. Sept. 5, 2021. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today).

The Gathering Place is only a small part of the fair, which also has an equestrian center, several arenas, livestock and exhibits of everything from canned goods and quilts to antique tractors, photography, and insects.

Melissa Keefe, state fair marketing and communications manager, said, “The fair food is one of our biggest draws because there are some things that you can only get during fair time, some unique foods.”

Salmon, halibut, crab, shrimp, along with reindeer sausage and fresh oysters, are a few of the favorite foods at the Alaska State Fair on Sept. 6, 2021 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today).

In addition to the more usual hamburgers and fries, you can find reindeer sausage, fried bread, fresh oysters, and salmon, crab and halibut cooked several different ways. You can top it off with chocolate-dipped bacon, peaches and cream, or a waffle with blueberry jam and whipped cream.

120B5A33-6BFD-49A4-968E-98541E904B62_1_105_c

Concerts are popular too. “There's really nowhere else in Alaska that has up to 12 to 14 concerts in a row,” said Keefe. Performers this year included Portugal The Man, which got its start at Wasilla High School in Alaska, and Billy Idol.

The fair was put on hold during World War II, and during the pandemic. Otherwise it’s been held every year since the Depression. In 1935 the federal government transported 203 families from Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Oklahoma to build a farming community in Palmer. The farmers held a fair the following year. The fair now contributes an estimated $23 million to the local economy.

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

Corrected spelling of Tsimshian, Sheila Ezelle, Laura Wright Alaskan Parkys and Il'jwaas Douglas Yates.

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.