Indigenous women in Alaska fight addiction with needlework | Polarjournal
The Eskimo yoyo is just one of the things the women make in the studio. It is a traditional toy of the Iñupiat, the Siberian Yupiks in Alaska, the Yup’ik and other indigenous peoples of Alaska. It is considered one of the simplest and at the same time most complex cultural toys in the world. Photo: IñuPiphany via Facebook

Arguably one of the greatest and most enduring evils inflicted on Arctic indigenous communities during colonisation is alcohol. From the beginning, many native people fought for the regulation and elimination of alcohol — to no avail. Instead, more and more indigenous people fell prey to the addictive drug, with devastating effects on people, families, communities to this day. Meanwhile, there are many efforts to keep people away from alcohol and fight their addiction. A special anti-addiction program is offered by IñuPiphany in Anchorage, Alaska.

At her cultural healing centre and art gallery for women, founder Helen Lane helps Alaska Native women affected by homelessness, substance abuse and addiction, life after incarceration and other social problems. Lane wants to present a space to women who are involved in traditional art and want to create it. At the same time, the centre teaches women the skills that they need as independent artists. IñuPiphany thus aims to enable the sale and appreciation of traditional art.

IñuPiphany is composed of two words: “iñu“, from Iñupiaq, which means “the real person”, and “epiphany”, which expresses that this program is the brainchild of a community member, Lane, as IñuPiphany describes in its brochure.

The studio has space for about 20 women to learn how to make traditional clothes. Photo: IñuPiphany via Facebook

Lane, a native of Point Hope in Alaska’s northernmost North Slope borough, opened the studio in November, supported by a grant from the Alaska Native Heritage Center. In addition to providing space where artists can store their materials and use the sewing machines, the centre is a place for learning: every two weeks, experienced artists give a one-week course for women who want to learn, for example, how to work with beads or how to make mittens and knitwear from musk ox wool. Lane already has a handful of regular customers who attend every class.

“It helps Alaska Native women not only learn different cultural activities, but also stay sober,” Lane says. “It’s a good place for us to come together, work and learn.”

One of the women is Wilsa Scott, who is from near Nome, in western Alaska. As she said in an interview with Alaska Public Media that she would like to someday learn to sew clothes for her family and regain some of the knowledge her generation skipped. “My grandmother sewed parkas, mukluks (traditional boots made of sealskin, ed), and our Native American clothing. And now I can do that for my children and grandchildren.” But she’s still working on her second Eskimo yoyo.

The women are proud of their work and of the fact that they manage to get away from addiction through handicrafts. The bracelets, fur hats, clothes etc that the women make at IñuPiphany will also be sold in the studio’s store. Photo: IñuPiphany via Facebook

In addition, Scott said uses the studio as a place to get support from her classmates to keep her from her addiction. She said her dedication to the craft has helped her save time and money that a few years ago she would have spent late nights at bars or recovering from a hangover the next morning. “Women ask me how I’m doing,” she said. “So there’s a lot of support for my sobriety.”

And that’s what initiator Lane is all about, sometimes treating her artists to maktaaq, whale skin with the layer of fat underneath.

The classes and the use of the studio space are free for the women, but they have to pay for the materials. And during the week-long courses, the artists must produce two works: one they get to keep and the second they donate to the studio store for sale. In addition, certain rules apply, such the ban on using drugs or drinking.

Lane adopted this concept from the neighboring Alaska Art Alliance, which has been around for just under a decade and is aimed primarily at men. Its founder, Leon Misak Kinneeveauk, was himself a drug addict and spent years in prison before coming up with the idea for the Art Alliance.

He hopes the model of stores like the Art Alliance and IñuPiphany will be recognised for what they are: culturally based help centres for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to the IñuPiphany Facebook profile

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