A series of events Bunnell Street Arts Center calls “Indigenized Fall” started on Oct. 5 with the First Friday opening of “Qaspeq/Kuspuk/Atikluk,” a group show at Bunnell of the traditional Alaska Native garment made and worn by cultures from Utqiagvik to Uzintun — the Homer Spit.
Other events featuring indigenous artists include artist-in-residence Emily Johnson’s “Being Future Being,” a work-in-progress performance piece at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18; the “Indigenous Road Show,” a workshop this month with Native leaders to teach Bunnell staff about how to more respectfully host indigenous artists, and the “Wear Your Qaspeq / Atikluk Gala” at 8 p.m. Nov. 1.
The First Friday artists talk began with a glitch in presentation caused when Ravn — the airline, not the trickster bird — didn’t load the frame of Dillingham artist Amber Webb’s room-sized kuspuk, a piece that shows the faces of dozens of Alaska Native and Native American women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered between 1969 and today.
Instead of hanging her work on the 12-foot tall display, Webb asked visitors to hold the art.
“It’s not often there are that many hands on this,” Webb said.
Standing at one end, Lillian Elvsaas of Port Graham acknowledged Native land, and said, “Thank you for coming to see all the work the ladies have done from all areas.”
Webb made her kuspuk to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman, an international movement to bring attention about Native women who have disappeared or been murdered. Some of the faces on her kuspuk are women Webb knows.
“Each one of these women has a story,” she said. “…I remember each story because you don’t forget when you read some of their accounts of what happened to these women. That will stay with you forever. That is part of the task of doing this work.”
At one point as Webb talked, she pointed out faces on the underside of the kuspuk, and the audience raised it up like a blanket, the gallery lights shining through the white fabric.
“What I think needs to happen now is, I think the United States needs to acknowledge that connection: Everywhere there has been colonization and there has been continuing violence against indigenous people, it needs to be acknowledge it connects back to genocide,” Webb said. “That’s what it is.”
At the opening, Bunnell artistic director Asia Freeman invited people to come up and hold Webb’s kuspuk.
“It’s an honor to stand here and hold this up as a community for you, for all these women,” Freeman said.
“I think that’s particularly symbolic, because I think Native women have been holding this up together for such a long time,” Webb said.
Also showing in “Qaspeq/Kuspuk/Atikluk” are artists Bobby Itta, Carla and Erin Gingrich, Darlene Wright, Martha Murray, and Anita Rearden. The hooded pullover, commonly spelled “kuspuk,” also is spelled “qaspeq” in Yup’ik. Among the Inupiaq people it’s called an atikluk. Historically, kuspuks were first made from canvas traded from the Russians, and later made of flour or sugar socks. They can be worn alone or sometimes to cover fur and skin coats.
Today kuspuk makers use modern fabrics and decorations. Some artists go beyond the traditional look of flowered fabric, rickrack trim and a flared bottom, creating fashions that could easily qualify as couture, such as the work of Erin Gingrich. Her kuspuks feature prints of images like caribou or whales made from photographs of Gingrich’s sculptures.
Homer artist Martha Murray made her fancy kuspuk of fine fabric for her husband Michael’s school reunion.
“I’m just glad to be here and showing off my kuspuk,” Murray said.
Utqiagvik artist Bobby Itta’s “Atikluk for Nancy” has a similar delicacy as Murray’s, but a deeper meaning.
Like Webb, Itta made her atikluk to honor a murdered indigenous woman — her sister, Nancy, killed 17 years ago when Nancy was 15.
“When this movement came about, I wanted to do something in honor of her,” Itta said.
At her talk, Itta answered a question non-Natives might have: Who can wear kuspuks?
“You can wear one anytime, whatever race you are,” Itta said. “We’re just proud and happy you’ll wear one. … It represents who we are and where we come from, and that you’re proud to represent our work. And so, wear away.”
Itta asked respect for artists like her who make kuspuks commercially.
“I think they should be made by Alaska Natives, but if you want to make one for yourself or personal use, that’s totally fine,” Itta said. “The only part that crosses the line is if you try and start a business without asking permission. They’re part of who we are, our culture.”
Of Koyukon and Inupiaq ancestry, Gingrich said, “Kuspuks to me have this beautiful capacity to express our current indigenous existence, our evolved indigenous existence. … It represents this honored women’s work that has been going on for millennia of creating clothing for our families and our community.”
Freeman said this season’s emphasis on indigenous art and culture came about in the light of shows like 2016’s “Decolonizing Alaska ”as over the past few years Bunnell expanded its mission to emphasize inclusion and equity along with excellence.
“As indigenous artists look deeper in the creative process to tell their stories and their stories of place, they’re drawing us along,” Freeman said.
When Bunnell looks at its calendar and upcoming programs, the staff and board now consider how events can be “indigenized.” That means considering Native artists or themes, inviting them to be in shows or do residencies.
For example, every other year Bunnell sponsors the Wearable Art show. In an off year, the staff considered how they could still think about wearable art and came up with the “Qaspeq/Kuspuk/Atikluk” invitational show and the gala.
Adele Person, Bunnell executive director, said the timing of “Indigenous Fall” also comes about from Columbus Day being renamed as Indigenous People’s Day, is it is in Alaska.
“Columbus ‘discovered’ this place,” Person said we have been taught, “even though so many people’s history was erased. Those people have living people here.”
An awareness of indigenous people also extends into Bunnell’s recognition of its place as being at the crossroads of Alaska Native cultures. Situated near Bishop’s Beach in Homer’s Old Town, the arts center honors the original place name for the area: Tuggeght, the Dena’ina word for “beluga.” At board meetings and in emails, staff and members acknowledge this origin. For example, Freeman’s email includes the phrase, “I am, gratefully, a long-term guest on this land called Tuggeght by the Dena’ina, a borderland of the Dena’ina and Sugpiaq people.”
“We’re in the midst of it, but what we really are is a landing place, a meeting place where cultures connect,” Freeman said.
Saying that was “awkward and shy,” Freeman said, “but it’s not a reason not to do it.”
“We can say that this land is part of the traditional homelands of the Dena’ina and Sugpiaq people and express our gratitude of being here,” she said. “…Maybe it will become a thing we do all the time naturally.”