AK: The crafty side of AFN

People have come to Fairbanks from all over the state to sell their handmade goods during the Alaska Federation of Native Conference this week. At the craft fair, you can find everything from ivory carvings and hand-made masks to mukluks, kuspuks and even kippered salmon. With few available jobs in the villages, these handicrafts and homemade foods are one of the few ways people pay their bills.

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Bags of Laura Stepanoff’s processed salmon at the AFN craft fair. (Photo by Emily Schwing)

The annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention is well known for its craft fair.

Edna Deacon is from Grayling. She came to Fairbanks to help her daughter sell handmade drums, small carved figurines and other trinkets, but she specializes in handmade birch bark baskets. She learned the craft from her father.

“Long time ago when I was a little girl.  He used to bring me out for berries. One time we didn’t have nothing to pick berries, only our cups, so he tell me we going to make a birch bark basket. I’m going to teach you how he tell me.” 00:20

Decades later, Deacon sells her baskets for anywhere between 40 and 250 dollars. She uses the money to pay for heating fuel.

“But I’ll have to save half of it for the food too,” Deacon said. “Essentials like flour, beans, rice.”

Deacon’s earnings keep her afloat in Grayling, where the cost of living is well above the national average.

That’s a worry for Sitka-based Yupik artist Peter Williams. He says he’s not sure his elders can really make ends meet in a setting like this.

“Like craft fairs, I think that’s really tough to get a living wage,” Williams said. “I look at elders and what they’re selling their prices for, what their material costs are, what their costs are to get to the craft fair, and I don’t even know if they are covering their booth fare.”

A booth at AFN’s craft fair costs about $300. For Williams, that fee is manageable. He hunts seal and sea otters himself and works the fur into high-end fashion. He recently showed his work on a runway in Brooklyn, New York.

Some of Peter Williams' crafted boots (Photo by Emily Schwing)
Some of Peter Williams’ crafted boots (Photo by Emily Schwing)

“Yeah I showed seal and sea otter and combinations of seal and sea otter pencil skirt, vests, seal earrings, sea otter headbands, ear muffs, sea otter trimmed scarfs, sea otter and sea otter mittens and cuff bracelets out of seal and sea otter,” Williams said.

The seal skin pencil skirt goes for $1,500. Mittens are $800. Williams said those expensive items don’t really pay the bills.

“Because I am not selling enough,” Williams said.

It’s a story heard round the craft fair and even outside. Tables line the sidewalk outside the doors of the Carlson Center, where the convention takes place. Laura Stepanoff has stacked hers high with Ziploc bags of hand-processed salmon that sell for $20 dollars each.

“We got smoked kings and smoked reds and I got salmon berry jam and pickled fish and kippered fish,” Stepanoff said.

Stepanoff is from Chignik Bay. She’s saving a little money on a booth fee by setting up outside, but she’s also spent the week fighting high wind, glaring sun and falling snow. Even so, on her first day, Stepanoff pulled in $2000 dollars – almost enough to cover her yearly $2500 electricity bill at home. As the conference picks up, she could bring in between three and four thousand dollars, but money isn’t the only reason she’s here.

“We come here early because of the elders. They’re happy to see us and it’s just nice to see them and visit with them.”

AFN is the largest annual gathering of Alaska Native people in the state. It’s a cultural celebration and a time to visit with friends and family.

Elder Anna Frank grew up in Minto. These days, she’s a well-known religious leader in Fairbanks. When AFN rolls around, she lays out her hand beaded hair barrettes, fur slippers and hand-sewn beaver hats next to a giant pan stacked high with homemade fry bread – $2 dollars each.

“If I make good on my table, I probably could take a vacation to Seattle, maybe go to the Mariner’s game or Seahawks or something,” Frank said. “That would be my vacation.”

Frank doesn’t rely on her handicrafts as a reliable source of income, but she won’t stop making them.

“It’s to pass on our tradition, our customs and the way we live,” Frank said.

That’s Edna Deacon’s goal too, but it’s hard in a village like Grayling. She taught her grandson how to make baskets, but she’s afraid his need for cash outweighs his desire to carry on a traditional way of life.

“He works. He goes out in the sea and go fishing,” Deacon said. “He has no time to make baskets.”