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Alaska Native traditional parka exhibit tells story of tradition, adaptation and connection

St. Lawrence Island Yupik ancestor artist, Bird feather parka, 1942, Anchorage Museum Collection,
Chris Arend
St. Lawrence Island Yupik ancestor artist, Bird feather parka, 1942, Anchorage Museum Collection

Crafted from bear, caribou and muskrat, adorned with embroidery, feathers and beads, traditional parkas in an upcoming exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe tell a story of tradition and connection among Alaska Native communities.

"It is person to person, people to people, animal to human, these relationships represented in the parka," said co-curator Melissa Shaginoff, who is part of the Udzisyu (caribou) and Cui Ui Ticutta (fish-eater) clans from Nay'dini'aa or Chickaloon Village in Alaska.

The exhibition is entitled Ghhúunayúkata, which means 'To Keep Them Warm', in the language of the St. Lawrence Island Yupik community, explained co-curator Suzi Jones.

She said that the idea for the exhibit began with a number of parkas, which are worn for warmth and also for ceremony, already in the museum's collection, and was planned in the course of a 2019 colloquium of Alaska Native women, "who are skin-sewers, parka-makers or tradition-bearers."

The women contributed information about the history and technology of parka-making, and the Anchorage Museum and the University of Alaska Museum of the North lent items for the show.

The exhibit includes 20 parkas, some contemporary and some more than a century old.

In addition there are illustrations, dolls, contemporary photographs and a film interviewing the makers. Shaginoff said the meaning of the parkas goes beyond individual communities and adaptation to the climate.

"It's also the connection to the animals, and the connection to the land and the deep connection to being a good person," she said. "While this is an Indigenous belief system that is being represented here and an Indigenous way of being, I think that a larger, broader audience can really benefit from knowing this story."

The exhibition opens Sunday, May 18 at 1pm, with a conversation with featured artists. It is scheduled to run until April 7, 2024.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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