The Alaska State Council on the Arts hosted three traditional northern Athabascan snowshoe masters and apprentices to work in the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center the first week of May. The program was part of ASCA’s ongoing Living Cultural Treasures Program. The residency included in-depth documentation of the cultural knowledge of specific individuals about endangered Athabascan art forms.
Alaska Athabascan master snowshoe makers, the Alaska State Council on the Arts and its partners, the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center and the Anchorage Museum, worked together to preserve, teach, and celebrate significant and endangered forms of traditional indigenous art. The residency responded to urgent recommendations from Alaska Native communities to connect older and younger generations of artists through apprenticeships and hands-on training.
Skilled master Athabascan snowshoe makers were matched with serious apprentices to convey their snowshoe making expertise and craftsmanship. Koyukon Athabascans George Albert of Ruby and Butch Yaska of Huslia instructed apprentices in two traditional Koyukon snowshoe styles. Gwich’in elder Trimble Gilbert (Arctic Village) discussed the art and practical use of snowshoes in his Native language.
The program incorporated Koyukon and Gwitch’in Athabascan storytelling, documented both languages, and captured the rich vocabulary, traditional knowledge, and northern Athabascan stories throughout the week long residency. The Anchorage Museum collections staff provided the master and apprentice teams with access to onsite objects in the collection for analysis and study.
ASCA, the Anchorage Museum Education Department, and the Arctic Studies Center facilitated an accompanying school science education program for almost 200 Anchorage School District pupils and their teachers. The public was provided access to snowshoe makers’ demonstrations and presentations.
The Anchorage Museum at the Rasmuson Center “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska,” exhibition features 600 historic masterworks of Alaska Native arts and design. It is a community resource for hands-on study by Native elders, artists, and scholars and serves as a research facility and a public space for teaching, recording, and presenting indigenous knowledge.
The Living Cultural Treasures Northern Athabascan Snowshoe residency was funded with National Endowment for the Arts, Folk and Traditional Arts Infrastructure grant and contributions from the Smithsonian Institution’s Recovering Voices program. A five minute DVD of Snowshoe Residency highlights will be available at the end of August.