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Thursday, April 15, 2010


I do not exist.

Well kind of.

To be exact, my "job" does not exist in my culture. What is my job? Why I am an artist of course. I take the "leftovers" of the animals we harvest and eat and make them into pretty things. I draw and paint and create. Things. Things to hang on your wall, things to wear on your wrist, things to give to other people so that they can appreciate handmade beauty. What I make are considered to be luxury items. Items not needed for survival (I can however debate that point). They simply exist to create feeling and mental reactions.

And in my culture we have no artists. In fact there is no Inupiaq word to even describe someone like me. The closest word that exist translates as "someone who makes things."

I'm not saying we don't exist now and that handmade beauty never existed in my culture, but I am saying that the "position" of artist has never existed till now. And of course this creates some problems for me and others like me.

For one thing all of the decoration that existed in my culture existed for a reason. The intricate graphic trim on clothing told of where someone was from and how many people they supported. The labrets on a man's chin explained his social standing. The markings carved into arrows were owners markings. There are very few examples of purely decorative beauty in my culture. In fact the only real expression of an artistic soul was closely tied to the old religion, with shaman's masks and body adornments. With carvings of animals born to lure or control our food source. So when the missionaries came they tied all of these things to the old religion. And of course this meant that they were forbidden. They even banned dancing as they did not understand why it made us happy. There was a great and dark hollow in our timeline where we were nervous about displaying our Inupiaq roots in artistic expression, afraid that it would be tied to something dark and feared.

Even still I am nervous. I have many images that could be tied to shamanism in my gallery. And I have suffered many words of abuse because of them. I have felt the warmth on my face when an elder shames me for even thinking of these things. I even had someone ask me if all elders hate me because of my work. It's a weird world in which I have to explain what "art" is, that it is not worship of any deity, of any religion, or any anti-religion. I explain in quiet words that I just think it is beautiful, and that these things bring me pride in my culture and my heritage. Not all elders are unsure of me though. Some find some pride in my work, or they work to understand the meaning behind them. But still. But still sometimes I hesitate to put an image to paper.

Another thing I see happening is the tendency to label artists. We are a money wanting gang to be sure, I make a living making art but it takes a massive amount of work on my part. We are often labeled as "braggers" or "pushy." Promoting your wares is not a natural Inupiaq ability or characteristic. It does not come natural or feel natural. We are raised to be quiet and humble, so the act of openly promoting our work and openly "pimping" ourselves is sometimes not seen as a friendly act. For as many times I have been told that I am talented and that my artwork is loved, I am also put down for my actions or inactions to include others in my promotions.

Artwork to me is the expression of my soul. And I happen to have a soul that needs a lot of expressing. It took me years to be comfortable with showing people my drawings. Years to not flinch when someone called me an artist, because in my mind it was a foreign word, a foreign position that did not belong in my culture. Years to be okay with writing my thoughts and letting someone else read them. Years.

My one and only wish - and I type this in all seriousness - is that I will bring pride to our artwork and artists. That if a Inupiaq child wishes to become an artist they will be able to do so, and to make a living doing it. I have been working with other artists to create a non-profit organization that will bring a name to our "job". But it will take many years. Many more years.


  1. mmm... i wonder if artists struggle by nature, because many of those that i know have found it difficult to identify as artists as well. (not to mention any material struggle!!) maybe it's a combination of the challenges of expression, of feeling "useful" and a strong impulse to create ("to make things").

    i wonder, too, if the lack of a word for artist isn't because there's a bit of an artist in everyone? some are more gifted/powerful/productive than others but art is pretty pervasive too.

  2. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Shelee ChamberlainApril 16, 2010 at 7:52 AM

    Quyana Nuna. Well written and well said.

  4. This is very true. Artist especially Native Alaskan artist need to be very proud of their work. I am afraid our younger generation doesn't see the talents their parents posses. The art of authentic hard soles, skin sewing.. The list can go on and on. I and my husband are working on a web site that will allow only Alaska Native artist to sell online. I started this site for my mom and other family members and relized their are other artist who like my mom just want to do their art and the techie part was expensive and time consumming. I hope to help our Native Alaskan artists with a all in one site to meet their needs. It is still in the works but you can check it out and if you have any comments. I would greatly apprecialt it. Thanks Auktweena Renner

  5. Very nice website Auktweena!

    remind me to promote it once we get our website up! We will only be representing artist from and on the North Slope but we will have no problem linking to your site!

  6. Thank you for articulating a unique and also universal dilemma for an artist, to feel worthy of this gift. I believe one purpose of 'art' may be to communicate things that can't be communicated through words. So perhaps for all of us, both makers and admirers, the art speaks for itself, in its own way.

    PS. I am envious of your home in the Brooks Range. I once lived there and I miss it.

  7. So beautiful and eloquent. You are also an artist with your words.

  8. I just came across another blogger's post about this blog post of yours:


  9. Love your blog. You're always jump starting me pea brain. :) Living in the Arctic without modern amenities was no easy accomplishment. They were bathed in the God given beauty of their surroundings, and their work, and each others soul. Beauty was all around them. After I've spent an unfulfilling day with a few fake and angry peeps and looked at cement walls i need to go find myself something beautiful to enjoy. If I spent the day hiking in a National Park with my husband... then not so much. maybe there's a connection to having a "need" for things of beauty?

    Also on an entirely different note....If your mom told you your hair was green you'd go look in the mirror and see that it's not and laugh and think your mom was making a silly funny or color blind or.... But you would not believe her. Our loved and respected elders are only human like us and just because we admire them doesn't make everything they say right. they have their own baggage to carry. We can pick and choose the good from the bad. we don't have to build a wall between us and them because they're wrong about something even when that something is very dear to us. We can just accept the gray & complexities in our life.

  10. I thought you might be interested in the conversation going on at Nnedi Okarafor is having about the reaction of some Africans to her Science Fiction novel "Who Fears Death". It sounds like a very similar dilemma to the one you have with your community. I don't know how to put a link in a comment, but her blog is