At the IñuPiphany studio in downtown Anchorage, four Alaska Native women worked diligently last week on crafting Eskimo yo-yos. They hand-stitched scraps of seal hide at tables in a clean, well-lit room behind a gallery on 4th Avenue.
It was almost silent, except for occasional laughter and chatter.
Wilsa Scott, one of the women, said she grew up bouncing between Nome and Shishmaref in Western Alaska, and she never really learned how to sew.
That afternoon at IñuPiphany, she was at work on her second yo-yo. Her goal is to one day learn to make clothing for her family, and regain some of the knowledge that skipped her generation.
“My grandma, you know, would make parkas, mukluks and just our Native attire. And so now I can make it for my kids and little grandkids,” she said.
There’s another reason she’s here, she said: the support she gets from her classmates to keep her from her addiction. She said her commitment to crafting has helped her save time and money that, a couple years ago, she would have spent at late nights in the bars, or recovering from hangovers the next morning.
“The ladies will ask me how I’m doing,” she said. “So there’s a lot of support for my sobriety.”
Scott’s story is what IñuPiphany is all about, said creator Helen Lane.
Lane, who’s from the North Slope village of Point Hope, opened the storefront in November with a grant from the Alaska Native Heritage Lane, who’s from the North Slope village of Point Hope, opened the storefront in November with assistance from the Alaska Native Heritage Center, who procured grant funding. The space is used as a co-op studio where artists can keep supplies and use sewing machines. It’s also a place where seasoned artists give weeklong lessons for women every other week to women who want to learn.
“It’s not only helping Alaska Native women learn different cultural activities, it’s also helping them stay sober,” said Lane. “It’s a good place for us to gather and work and learn.”
Lane sometimes treats attendees to muktuk shipped in from Point Hope. So far, there’s a handful of regulars who have come for classes each week, like bead work and mitten making. Then, there are some items that really pique interest, like making kuspuks, known as atikłuks in Inupiaq.
“We didn’t have enough sewing machines, so there was ladies waiting,” Lane said.
Class enrollment is limited so far to about 20 people most weeks because of space, though often only a handful of women show up for classes. IñuPiphany has gotten community support in other ways, too, like donations of hard-to-get supplies from anonymous benefactors. A woman Lane didn’t know reached out over Facebook once to offer seal skins.
“She’s like, ‘I like your program, I want to help you. I have a few seal skins. I usually don’t sell them because I keep them for myself but I want to help you,’” she said.
Artists just have to follow a few rules to join IñuPiphany, like not using drugs or alcohol. Classes and studio space are free, though Lane charges for materials, and artists have to make two items during each weeklong class: one they take home and another they donate to the shop to sell.
That model came from a shop next door, the Alaska Art Alliance. That shop has been around for nearly a decade and was set up by Leon Misak Kinneeveauk, primarily for men. He said the idea for the co-op space came from his life experiences, including his years in prison and experiencing homelessness on the Anchorage streets.
“I guess it was a lot of things — the prison shops, the struggle out here with a lot of the Natives that come to the city,” he said.
Both IñuPiphany and the Art Alliance sit on 4th Avenue near C Street, where some Alaska Native people who are homeless spend time.
Kinneeveauk hires some of them for maintenance or cleaning jobs at the shop, or tries to find them carving space, something he said came from an ethic he learned in his hometown of Point Hope on the North Slope.
“Everybody kind of helped everybody work together,” he said. “It didn’t matter how you felt about somebody — when it was time to go whaling, you had to be out there whaling and working together.”
He said that after moving to Anchorage from Point Hope, he lived in the throes of addiction to cocaine and alcohol. He occasionally made crude ivory carvings and sold them to get money for a quick hit of drugs. After spending more than a decade in prisons, he said, he’s addicted to art now, and he’s dedicated to keeping the Art Alliance open so that others have a safe, stable place to focus on their own work.
Kinneeveauk has also been advising Lane from the start and even works at the shop, carving scrimshaw into walrus tusks as he oversees the gallery at the front of the building. He said he hopes the model for shops like the Art Alliance and IñuPiphany get recognized for what they are: culturally based support centers for drug addiction and alcoholism.
“It’s just the beginning,” he said. “I’m hoping these bigger entities, like the corporations or the city, or even the state can see what we’re doing and figure out, ‘Hey, how can we do this at a bigger level?’”
This story has been updated with the correct capitalization of IñuPiphany and with clarification about the grant source.