Web site works to promote Native artists

Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Tommy Jimmie Sr. put away his wood-carving tools more than 15 years ago, but he is coming out of retirement thanks to a new Web site that markets Native art.

"I just want to get back to carving," said Jimmie, 75. "I figure I'm just as good an artist as those other guys out there."

Sealaska Heritage Institute recently launched the Web site, www.alaskanativeartists.com, to help Natives such as Jimmie, who is Tlingit, capitalize on the tourism market.

The site includes photos and biographies of 13 Native artists along with video and photo galleries of their work. It is geared to educate the public about Native art and the intricate processes used to create the pieces. Customers can buy jewelry, basketry, beadwork, clothing, drums and masks directly through the site. They also may contact Sealaska Heritage to see a piece in person, Worl said. Sealaska Heritage takes 20 percent of the retail price to cover its administrative costs.

The site was created in response to Native artists' complaints that Alaska merchants are purchasing cheap replicas of Alaska Native art made by non-Natives, said Sealaska Heritage President Rosita Worl. She said some retailers refuse to buy the more costly, but authentic, pieces.

"When tourists come in and see a (replica) mask for $60 or $65, they are not educated about it and will probably (buy it)," Worl said.

Sealaska Heritage's Website complies with the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which prohibits the display or sale of any good that falsely suggests it is Native-made. A Juneau Empire investigation in 2000 found numerous cases of local retailers passing off non-Native art as Alaska Native work.

Worl said she hopes the Web site will allow Native artists to create a market that eventually reaches across the United States. The site also is an outgrowth of Sealaska Heritage's mission to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, she said.

Jimmie began carving at 14, buying postcards and copying the pictures of totem poles, he said. Once he returns to carving, he would like to supervise the design and carving of a large totem pole. In the meantime, he plans to take a block of yellow cedar, sharpen his tools, and make a colorful headdress.

The Web site helped Tlingit artist Donald Gregory of Juneau complete the sale of a $2,500 Tlingit soul-catcher necklace, he said.

Officials from the Museum of Natural History in New York City first noticed Gregory's piece on display at the Roberts Service Station on South Franklin Street. Gregory had sold the piece at wholesale to Roberts, which sold it to the museum.

Museum officials were in Juneau over the summer shopping for traditional and contemporary Northwest art. One official called Gregory last week inquiring about the piece - a shaman's tool to heal patients. He directed her to the Web site.

"It just made me feel good that she could come to our site and see first-class videos and photos of it," Gregory said.

He created the piece with the hope that shaman Cy Peck Jr. of Juneau would use it during blessing ceremonies. Peck could use the necklace to take in a person's soul to rid it of evil spirits and illnesses before blowing it, cleansed, back into the body, Gregory explained.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at tara.sidor@juneauempire.com.

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