In the annual fall campaign season, candidate and proposition signs pop up on roadsides like stalks of pushki. During political protests, people wave signs at WKFL Park. When Anesha “Duffy” Murnane went missing last fall, friends made signs in her support. And during the pandemic, hopeful signs by the South Kenai Peninsula Resiliency Coalition appeared in rows along city streets.
Last weekend, in “Land Acknowledgement in Action: Sign Installation,” sponsored by Bunnell Street Arts Center, artists made signs for a different purpose: to recognize that Indigenous people have long been stewards of the places in the lands we we call home. On Saturday at the Bishop’s Beach pavilion and Sunday at Bunnell Street Arts Center, people repurposed old campaign signs or scrap metal and plywood, expressing their visions of what it means to acknowledge the Indigenous roots of Kachemak Bay.
Facilitated by Kenai artist Melissa Shaginoff, of the Ahtna and Paiute peoples, the signs said things like “Sustain Indigenous knowledge” or simply the Dena’ina or Suqpiaq names for geographic features around the bay.
Bishop’s Beach, for example, is named after George and Jane Bishop, owners of Bishop’s Trading Post — the building that now houses Bunnell Street Arts Center — but the area at the mouth of Beluga Slough has the Dena’ina name of “Tuggeht” (pronounced “to-get”), meaning “at the water.” The Dena’ina word for the Homer Spit is “Uzintun,” meaning “extends out into the distance.” Argent Kvasnikoff, a Ninilchik artist, said Tuggeht also can mean the general area of the Homer bench all the way up to the hills of Diamond Ridge and Skyline Drive.
Asia Freeman, Artistic Director for Bunnell, referenced its history in the trading post on the center’s website page about its land acknowledgement efforts.
“Our work today is to reinvent this space, to foster and build this community as a place of cultural wealth and opportunity for all,” she wrote. “We all benefit from alignment with Indigenous practices of investing in community and sharing what we make, sharing our cultural wealth.”
At Saturday’s workshop, Shaginoff mentioned a sign referencing the COVID-19 pandemic that said, “We’re Alaskans. We can get through this.”
“We see so many signs these days,” she said. “If we can’t gather, maybe signs are a way to connect.”
Standing before a sign that said, “We are on Indigenous land,” Shaginoff talked about the purpose of land acknowledgment. Through Bunnell Street Arts Center, and building on previous land acknowledgement work by Emily Johnson, this spring Shaginoff has been leading series of workshops and dialogues that were recorded as videos on Bunnell’s web page at https://www.bunnellarts.org/inspiration-and-adaptation.
The workshop series was funded by a Social Justice Award from the the Alaska Community Foundation to enable conversations and training about land acknowledgment, Freeman said. Bunnell also received a Homer Foundation grant on “Decolonizing the Mind,” to look at the health impacts of colonization.
“We’re really trying to think about this in a systemic way — the impacts of changing and not changing,” Freeman said.
The pandemic pushed a series of dialogues into the virtual world of the Zoom networking platform — a necessity that turned out to have an unanticipated benefit, Freeman said.
“Zoom ended up being a fantastic platform,” she said. “… We were able to engage more people from the comfort of their own homes. … The adaptation we’re making are going to permanently change our course. We’re realizing the profound impact of becoming more accessible through these online platforms. That really supports our commitment to equity and access.”
The Homer Foundation also funded a grant in cultural competency, to engage arts and culture works in how to learn and understand the protocols for engaging artists and indigenous communities. The Rasmuson Foundation gave a grant for permanent and ephemeral works relating to wayfinding and public art having to do with indigenous land marking, Freeman said.
On Saturday, Ninilchik artist Argent Kvasnikoff showed models illustrating the Dena’ina wayfinding system, called “Tuyanintun.” That system has five directions, and when you follow a direction, you are said to be in that direction, not going to it, Kvasnikoff said.
A painted disk showing the lower Kenai Peninsula, for example, had five sections marked off like pieces of pie. Five concentric circles were painted on the disk radiating out from a center, with each circle representing about a day’s travel by foot. The center of the circle was on the highest point in the area, a hill in the Caribou Hills. Lines spreading out on the disk represented the river systems of the lower peninsula. Other lines indicated the coastline, with the Spit — Uzintun — easily identifiable.
Kvasnikoff also had a stack of five rocks topped by an agate. Those rocks represent the circles on the disk, and could be placed on a beach to indicate the direction of travel and how long it takes to get there.
At one of her workshops, Shaginoff noted that land acknowledgment means more than making statements, Freeman said — more than making signs. Freeman mentioned her experience growing up in Homer and going to school. She said the history of Alaska she learned began with the Alaska purchase brokered by William Seward.
“I never really knew any Dena’ina names, learned absolutely nothing about Dena’ina and Suqpiaq culture,” she said. “… It’s a very racist way of telling our story. It excluded that story of genocide and enslavement by the Russians, the impacts of the (1918) Spanish flu. … It suppressed the true history. This to me is an act of reparation; it’s an act of true and reconciliation.”
On Sunday, artists completed the signs, now on Bunnell’s back porch. On Sept. 5 Bunnell will document the signs through a book project and a short movie where people talk about their signs and then install them on their land.
The land acknowledgment sign making workshop also had another aspect, Freeman noted: It was the first time since the start of the pandemic that Bunnell has held a public event where people could gather. Held outside, the participants practiced social distancing and wore masks.
Freeman said the land acknowledgment workshops fit in with Bunnell’s newly revised mission statement: “Sparking artistic inquiry, innovation and equity to strengthen the physical social and economic fabric of Alaska.”