The end of winter. Selling art. 'We've been doing this all our lives'

"I know the slippers, but the hats, I have to [learn how to] do those," said Eliza Sipary, Yup'ik, shown here at her sales table with her brother Yako Andrew keeping her company. She makes a living selling fur hats, leather moccasins and boots, beaded jewelry and crocheted items made by her and her relatives. The siblings are originally from the village of Tuntutuliak in western Alaska and now live in Anchorage. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)

Joaqlin Estus

Coronavirus threat may disrupt Native artists’ livelihoods

Temperatures in Anchorage, Alaska, are in the teens, still well below freezing. But the sun was shining Thursday and the days are getting longer. It is starting to feel like the worst of winter is over and Anchorage-ites are celebrating at the annual winter festival.

Fur Rendezvous started in 1935 when a winter carnival was added to the yearly gathering of trappers selling and trading their furs. Since then it’s grown into a festival with fireworks; a parade; art, photography and antique car exhibits; a masked ball, and carnival rides. It also features some uniquely Alaskan events such as snowshoe softball, and a downtown footrace called “Running of the Reindeer,” when reindeer trot to a temporary pen and food alongside people in costumes.

The Charlotte Jenson Native Art Market draws buyers and collectors to the Dimond Mall in south Anchorage where they can talk with and buy directly from artists. The Native arts market is named after a long-time Rondy volunteer who was chairperson of the Native arts market. 

Tina Williams is the current co-chair of the Native arts market. “We have about 200 tables," Williams said. "Intermittently, we probably have about 20 tables left. So we have probably 180 artists.”

Eliza Sipary, Yup’ik, said she sells items made by her family. “Most of our living is sewing right now.” Sipary has a few fur hats by her late mother priced to sell for $350 to $500. Her mother passed down her patterns to her. “I only made one, only once. I have to start. I know the slippers, but the hats, I have to [learn how to] do those.”

To make a living, she sells at summer farmers' markets, church bazaars and Native markets such as this one, and a huge market held at the annual statewide Alaska Federation of Natives convention. "Then when we find little shops, we go for those ones too. And all the events that we can get into, if they have room, we get into those," Sipary said.

"Working away!" said Helen Shtakaawté McNeil, Nisga’ and Tlingit, holding up a needle, thread, and beads while sitting behind examples of the finished product.
"Working away!" said Helen Shtakaawté McNeil, Nisga’ and Tlingit, holding up a needle, thread, and beads while sitting behind examples of the finished product. (Credit: Joaqlin Estus)

June Simeonoff Purdue, Alutiiq, is originally from Old Harbor and now lives in Anchorage. She worked on a traditional Alutiiq beaded headdress as she sat behind a table with jewelry and pieces of salmon-skin leather set out for sale. She's making a replica of an item collected by a French explorer in 1872. The original is on loan to the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak from the Musée Boulogne-Sur-Mer in France.

“We were trying to get as close as we can in replicating what Alphonse Pinart collected so that when [the original] is shipped back to the museum in France, we will have the replica with us,” Purdue said.

June Purdue, Alutiiq, holds up banded strands that will attach to the back of a close-fitting beaded cap, a replica of a headdress collected by a French explorer in the 1800s. When the original is returned to a French museum, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak will have the replica.
June Purdue, Alutiiq, holds up banded strands that will attach to the back of a close-fitting beaded cap, a replica of a headdress collected by a French explorer in the 1800s. When the original is returned to a French museum, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak will have the replica. (Credit: Joaqlin Estus)
A closeup of a section of June Purdue's beaded headdress. It's not for sale but if it were, she said the asking price would be $5,000.
A closeup of a section of June Purdue's beaded headdress. It's not for sale but if it were, she said the asking price would be $5,000. (Credit: Joaqlin Estus)

When asked if she makes a lot of money selling arts and crafts, Purdue laughed and said, “Hardly anything. And we work so hard. But we've been doing this all our lives."

Purdue said, “I started with Native arts and crafts right after the 1964 earthquake and tidal wave. I was 12 years old.” Her family had lost their home in Old Harbor, on Kodiak Island, and a year’s supply of food. 

June's husband, Charlie Purdue, Alutiiq, makes some earrings of ivory walrus tusks and baleen (bristles in a whale's mouth used to filter food). This set is made of fossilized woolly mammoth tusk and jade beads. He said melting permafrost is leaving the mammoth tusks exposed and available for collecting.
June's husband, Charlie Purdue, Alutiiq, makes some earrings of ivory walrus tusks and baleen (bristles in a whale's mouth used to filter food). This set is made of fossilized woolly mammoth tusk and jade beads. He said melting permafrost is leaving the mammoth tusks exposed and available for collecting. (Credit: Joaqlin Estus)

“Our mail was delivered by pilots in the Grumman Goose and the Widgeon planes, amphibious planes that landed in the water and rolled up onto the beach. The pilot would open the door and open his pack and holler people's names out,” Purdue said.

“My dad got a hold of the pilot and said, ‘Hey, can you take our Native, our phenomenal Native arts and crafts that we make and sell those in Kodiak?’ And that's what they did for us," Purdue said. "They took our stuff, and that would buy groceries. That’s when I wove my first basket for sale. And that's how I got started in the arts. So it's been a lifelong thing. 

"We just try to practice our Native values," Purdue said, "You know, we were raised with that from our parents, respecting one another and ourselves, never forgetting our language and who we are and where we come from." 

Carved and painted paddles showing Raven holding the sun in his beak, by Timber Vavalis, Tlingit, originally from Juneau, now of Palmer, Alaska.
Carved and painted paddles show Raven holding the sun in his beak, by Timber Vavalis, Tlingit, originally from Juneau, now of Palmer, Alaska.(Credit: Joaqlin Estus)

Helen Shtakaawté McNeil, Tlingit and Nisga’, said about half her annual income is from arts and crafts sales. 

She said some artists, especially if they travel to Anchorage to take part in the art market, have a hard time covering costs even though the tables go for only $150 for five days. She said well-known artists with big ticket sales items can earn in the tens of thousands of dollars in a good year.

"I made probably 20 times more a year in 2008 than I do now. Huge difference,” McNeil said. “Alaska's been in a recession since 2008. The economy has never fully recovered and arts and crafts is kind of the canary in the cage," McNeil said. "When people start feeling secure and having disposable income to buy frivolities like a nice beaded necklace, a fur hat, then we make money."

“A lot of people aren't spending money because of the economy or because of the coronavirus. People are really afraid,” McNeil said. She’s seen some people wearing face masks and others who seem to be wary of getting too close. She worries art markets will dwindle or even get cancelled once coronavirus cases show up in Alaska. And she fears that may be soon.

“Being that there are so many people exposed to the virus in Washington state, and a lot of people from here go to Washington just for weekends,” McNeil said. 

The number of coronavirus cases in Washington rose from 39 to 70 on Thursday, and the death toll there is now at eleven people. Seattle is a 3.5 hour flight from Anchorage and a frequent layover stop for destinations outside Alaska.

Foot traffic was steady over the lunch hour Thursday as shoppers looked at Alaska Native arts and crafts being sold at the Charlotte Jenson Native Art Market in Anchorage, Alaska.
Foot traffic was steady over the lunch hour Thursday as shoppers looked at Alaska Native arts and crafts being sold at the Charlotte Jenson Native Art Market in Anchorage, Alaska. (Credit: Joaqlin Estus)

The Native art market ends Sunday, the last day of Fur Rendezvous. The Iditarod Sled dog Race has a ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday. On Sunday, the real race gets underway from a starting point in Willow, about 75 miles north of Anchorage. 

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Updated: Mar. 6, 2020 to correct spelling of Shtakaawté.


Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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