For Alaska Native earring makers, the pandemic brought a boom

Woman in studio
Lisa Apangalook, ivory carving artist, in her art studio in Spenard. (Alice Glenn/Alaska Public Media)

A year ago, as the pandemic drove everybody inside, Delaney Thiele turned her focus to earrings. She owns a business called Cloudberry, selling Indigenous beaded earrings, mostly on Instagram.

“I just had such a good time just like beading and doing all of these fun designs. And most of them I never sold, or it never came to anything, but it was so fun to explore that side of things,” Thiele said.

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But soon sales started picking up online, far more than she’d expected. Her social media following doubled. She had her biggest sale ever during the holidays last December.

Thiele is among a number of Alaska Native earring artists who found sudden pandemic success by selling earrings through Instagram. Beaded earrings have always been a staple in Native fashion, but a big uptick in business shows they’re in broad demand: They’re an easy way to be stylish in Zoom meetings, for example.

For the artists themselves, Thiele said, making and sharing the earrings has also become a way to connect to community, identity and culture during a time of isolation. She is Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ik from Anchorage.

“I’m a blond-haired, blue-eyed, very pale skin, Native girl that doesn’t look Native. And so I think Cloudberry is just kind of like an expression of that. And it was just so influential, me trying to figure out who I am as an indigenous person and so I guess I try to reflect that in my beadwork as best as I can,” Thiele said.

But the sudden increase in business has brought unexpected complications for some artists.

Related: The unique earrings made from polar bear fur, walrus ivory and more | Indie Alaska

For Lisa Apangalook, who is best known for being an ivory-carving artist, the last year has been up and down. Before the pandemic, her jewelry business Piitkaq Jewelry was growing steadily, but the pandemic super-charged demand. As soon as she posted her pictures to social media page, customers snatched up her earrings in seconds.

hands holding cross section of ivory
Lisa Apangalook sands and carves jewelry out of walrus ivory sourced from her home in Saint Lawrence Island. (Alice Glenn/Alaska Public Media)

But there were problems. For one thing, she caught the virus, which brought her work and sales to a complete halt for at least two weeks. On top of that, demand for her pieces prompted others to copy her signature styles.

“For someone to have reached out to my followers and say, ‘Yeah, I can make that for cheaper.’ That felt a little dirty and violating to my work,” Apangalook said.

She’s learning to deal with some of the setbacks that come with increased popularity, she said. And business continues to grow. 

Kawahine Danner is an Iñupiaq and Hawaiian artist and jewelry-maker based out of Utqiaġvik. She recently moved from Hawaii and used art to cope during her relocation. She used to sell in person with her business Kawahine Creations, but the pandemic ended that. She found a robust online market, but also the unique complications of conducting business in rural Alaska.

“You know, when we run out of supplies, we don’t have a Walmart, or Michaels, or a huge store to go down the street, we have to order our supplies, wait a month, and shut down our shop for that month. Another issue is, our internet bills for conducting online sales are like $300 to $800 a month,” Danner said. 

Despite the expense, social media serves as an essential connector, making the earrings she crafts in a 5,000-person community on the Arctic Ocean accessible to a global market. 

“I have been able to sell earrings and prints all across the world, which is super cool. I get orders from everywhere, Australia, different countries. And it’s been a process learning how to make a living this way. But it’s been awesome,” Danner said.

Although the pandemic has brought unique challenges, all three artists feel it has helped them grow their businesses online. They look forward to creating quality work throughout the rest of the year, they said, as well as supporting other budding artists.

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