KODIAK - Thirty-five hundred miles from Kodiak, local artist Leona Haakanson-Crow experienced an epiphany that has fueled her creative spirit.
"It felt so good," she said. "This is me, this is where I belong. I felt proud of what I was doing. I know my dad would be proud, too."
The Alaska Native Arts Foundation asked Haakanson-Crow to be one of eight artists at the first Alaska Native Arts and Cultural Festival in Washington, D.C.
"They asked if I would represent our people at the Smithsonian," she said. "I said it would be an honor."
Haakanson-Crow and her husband, Kyle Crow, were kept remarkably busy at the Nov. 4-6 festival at the Smithsonian museums of natural history and American Indian.
Through out the event, visitors to the Smithsonian saw myriad cultural activities, showcasing dancing, storytelling, performers and a film festival.
Festivities began with a black-tie dinner in the foyer of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Haakanson-Crow said she suffered from a bit of culture shock as she found herself fresh off the plane and at a "pretty impressive" black-tie soiree attended by dignitaries such as Sen. Ted Stevens.
"I was kind of shy," she said.
Through the four-day festival, Haakanson-Crow demonstrated how to make headdresses and answered questions from tourists the world over.
Some wanted to know what the colors of beads represent. Others asked why she looked different from Eskimos. Inevitably, questions came up about living in igloos.
Wearing a traditional kuspuk, a loose dress, Haakanson-Crow told museum visitors that it typically takes three to six months for her to complete a headdress. She said she is proud and touched when she sees someone wearing something she made.
"I love to create things," she said. "I never have a plan when I'm doing it. It just takes place."
Foundation board members Alice Rogoff Rubenstein and Veronica Slajer welcomed the artists into their homes for dinner.
On the walls of the Rubenstein home, they saw pictures of the couple with the Pope, with presidents and with former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
"I'm going, 'Who are these people?"' Kyle Crow said of his well-connected hosts.
Haakanson-Crow said her feet hurt at the dinner, and her hostess arranged for a foot bath to soak her feet and a package of bandages to take back to the hotel.
"I've never been taken care of like that," she said.
The foundation aims to make the event an annual one. Haakanson-Crow said she hopes that spurs more Alutiiq to promote their work.
"It will give other Natives a chance to express themselves," she said. "It will open up their eyes that there's so much to do and share."
After the trip to the nation's capital, Haakanson-Crow said she is brimming with new ideas and enthused about her craft.
"I'm excited to show the public new things," she said.
Haakanson-Crow visited Washington, D.C., more than two decades ago as a high school student.
"This time it was more rewarding," she said. "I was older, and I had a purpose."
She also had company.
Forty Alaska Natives traveled to the show, in addition to the artists.
"I didn't feel I was alone," she said.
As Haakanson-Crow stroked a silvery cream seal pelt, she described how a woman from the Nome area had given it to her.
"That way we can connect again," she said. "I feel a friendship has started with an Alutiiq lady up North."
The fur has inspired her to incorporate more traditional materials. She's already used a sliver of the pelt for a basket.
"It will have more meaning for me," she said.
The Crows made a detour south to North Carolina to see Kyle's daughter at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base before she is transferred to South Korea.
On base, Haakanson-Crow climbed in the cockpit of an F-15 fighter jet.
At the Dillard Academy, a charter school in Goldboro, N.C., Haakanson-Crow presented her culture to a class full of underprivileged children who had never heard much about Alaska.
She wore a headdress and full regalia.
"I know they went home with something spiritual," she said.
The interaction was meaningful for Haakanson-Crow as well. She said it has spurred her ambition to teach Native crafts to more students.
Haakanson-Crow said she learned her art from Elders, particularly Aunt Emily.
"To me, it's keeping our traditions alive," she said. "It's something to be proud of."
Her father, Sven Haakanson Sr., was mayor of Old Harbor for 29 years.
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