Ancient Threads, Modern Fabric: Highlights from Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Tináa Art Auction

Southeast Alaska is many things: a natural wonder; a wildlife hotspot; an outdoorsman’s paradise; an epic forest; a seafood lover’s dream; a drainage engineer’s nightmare. But in a part of the world largely defined by wilderness, for thousands of years it has also been a jewel of human culture, rich in the history, art and heritage of its indigenous people.


Today, where the mountains meet the sea, contemporary meets traditional to create a truly unique aesthetic.

This melding of old and new was on brilliant display this past Friday night at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Tináa Art Auction, an elegant fundraising gala at Centennial Hall supporting SHI’s endowment fund, named after the Tlingit copper shield symbolizing wealth and status.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of past and present pervaded everything about the evening.

And I mean everything: from the 50-plus pieces featured in the silent and live art auctions — none more, perhaps, than the “Tlingit Darth Vader” print — to the artists posing for selfies next to their cedar carvings and spruce baskets; from the designs presented in the opening Native fashion show to the fashion show’s music itself, courtesy of DJ Celeste Worl (I don’t think I’ve ever heard electronica mashed-up with Tlingit dance drumming); from the dinner menu, prepared by Hangar on the Wharf— fresh oysters from Hoonah (donated by Káawu Oyster Co.), but also artisan gin cocktails (donated by Amalga Distillery); halibut “papillote” and reindeer sausage with a “raspberry mostarda” — to the attire worn by most of the event attendees—tailored suits and cocktail dresses accessorized with embroidered clan vests and “tináa” pendants. I saw one woman in an evening gown and woven potlatch hat.

This all seemed especially fitting, given SHI was originally founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding (if “Tlingit Darth Vader” doesn’t promote cross-cultural understanding, I don’t know what does). SHI’s mission: perpetuating the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

Of course, this takes resources. Enter the fundraiser. Three years ago, SHI organized the first Tináa Art Auction to help pay for the construction of the Walter Soboleff Center in downtown Juneau. This time around, proceeds kicked off a new endowment specifically earmarked to fund art, language, culture and education programs such as mentor-apprenticeships, workshops and artist-in-residence studies.

And by all accounts, SHI’s second Tináa Art Auction was even bigger and better.

Most notably, it began with an hour-long Native fashion show, directed by Amber-Dawn Bear Robe, of the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation in Alberta, Canada. It featured 40 looks by 11 designers from Juneau, Anchorage, Washington, New Mexico and British Columbia, including Violet Dawn Ahmie, Pamela Baker, Barbara Fujimoto, Marcus Gho, Dorothy Grant, Louise Kadinger, Sandra Marion, Patricia Michaels, Rochelle Smallwood, Maria Shaa Tláa Williams and Crystal Worl. Local talent of various shapes and sizes modeled couture inspired by — and in many cases incorporating — Northwest Coast textile and formline art, capped by a special appearance from Alyssa London, Miss Alaska USA 2017, in a gown by Joey Galon Atelier with a design by Preston Singletary.

Singletary also contributed a blown and etched glass basket to the live auction, led by auctioneer Jeff Boehm and amiably moderated by former Alaska State Senator Albert Kookesh, who described a succession of different audience members as “the second-richest Native” he knew. This tactic worked and they all eventually bid—one into the five figures.

All told, the live auction consisted of work from 10 other master artists, some of whom were in attendance and offered heartfelt testimonials. Those works are “Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother,” a serigraph print by Robert Davidson; “Small Red Edge” and “Small Red Corner,” a mixed media diptych by Sonya Kelliher-Combs; “Half-Head of Salmon Berry,” a woven basket by Delores Churchill; “Bentwood Box-Style Bucket with Ladle,” by David A. Boxley, who also contributed a carved bowl to the silent auction; “Raven and Rose” Sea Otter Blanket by Louise Kadinger and Crystal Worl; “Eagle Headress,” by Duane Pasco; “Raven Pendant” by Jerrod Galanin; “Thunderbird Mask” by Ray Watkins; “Baby Eagle” Pendant by Nathan Jackson and “Song of the Night, Reflection, Sleepless Shadow, Leaping Forward” by Susan Point.

SHI Media and Publications Director Amy Fletcher wrote in an email that between the live auction, the silent auction, and tickets, the auction raised nearly $200,000. About $68,000 of that was from the live auction, of which the top-grossing piece was David A. Boxley’s bentwood box-style bucket and ladle, which went for $12,000.

I’d call that a pretty successful fundraiser, especially if you consider SHI’s endowment as an investment in the future. After all, today’s students become tomorrow’s master artists — and the stars of SHI Tináa Art Auctions to come. I, for one, can’t wait.


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