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A Brief Intro to Alaska Native Art

Tlingit totem pole

For Alaska’s indigenous people — who lived off the sea and land — art was not originally decorative but rather a symbol of spiritual and metaphysical activity, a reference to living in harmony with nature.

It was not until the 17th century – when Europeans first made contact with the people of coastal Alaska — that these non-utilitarian art objects were traded in exchange for tools, cloth, food and more. These objects became useful items for trade, such as:

  • harpoon pikes carved from ivory tusks
  • clothing woven from grass
  • outerwear sewn from the membranes in the innards of seals
  • animal skins used for warm overcoats

Items increased in value as they became more ornate and decorative, often ending up as souvenirs for whalers and explorers.

Ceremonial art objects

Alaska Native mask

Aside from “useful” art objects, Alaskans also sold and traded items such as dance fans, masks and artifacts.

Alaska native maskFor example, scrimshaw is essentially elaborate aesthetic carving done in tusk, bone or ivory, depicting scenes of hunting and
foraging. Yupik masks are used to bring the person wearing it luck and good fortune in hunts. They also have ceremonial purposes — bringing the hunter, animals and spirits together into one being.

Inupiat sculptures are not made for decoration, but as “good luck amulets” for hunting, or sometimes children’s toys. Totem poles reflects Tlingit oral history (versus written), with carved animal on the pole representing a family crests or specific story of importance.

One interesting practice of North American indigenous people is that no part of an animal hunted, fished or trapped should be wasted. Because of this, one might see boots made of bearded seal skin for soles, salmon skin for the outer layer, and straps of deerskin or caribou dyed with berries.

Alaska Native art today

Alaska scrimshaw

Because Alaskan art is so distant from prestigious art markets, it was largely unknown and unseen outside the state of Alaska until the internet. Nowadays the tradition and art forms have evolved through westernization. The distinction between “traditional” and “contemporary” art isn’t always so clear.

Fortunately, there are now non-profit organizations dedicated to supporting Native artists and their traditional subsistence lifestyles.

Photo credits: eraign 1, 2, lrod, baggis24915372@N03