ARTShops: An Alaska Native Arts Leadership Program

Project Spotlight: Arts leaders in rural Alaska share harvesting, processing, cultural and art-making knowledges, connecting across generations.

Indigenous Sovereignty Creating Possible Futures
Map of Alaska showing 28 locations of ARTShops projects funded by the CIRI Foundation.

The arts are connected to environmental, economic, cultural and social issues. Through art-making we build communities and maintain relationships by creating shared references to connect past, present and future. In order to pass artistic traditions from one generation to the next, Alaska needs experienced arts leaders who are willing to share their skills and knowledge. The ARTShop program supports this through focused funding for emerging Alaska Native arts leaders.

The ARTShops program was developed as a pilot program by the CIRI Foundation and the Alaska State Council on the Arts in 2016 to support artist leaders working in rural Alaska. Each year since then, four Alaska Native artists are selected to participate in the program as ARTShops leaders. The program has supported grass-sewing projects in Naknek and Kokhanok, boat-building in Akhiok, Naxein (Chilkat) weaving in Juneau, kammak (skin boots)-making in Nome and Utqiaġvik, fish skin sewing in Beaver, qaspeq-making in Kasilof and Dillingham, fishskin boot-making in Unalaska, and mask-carving in Bethel, along with other activities. Each program includes intergenerational learning opportunities where youth and Elders work together to share ideas and learn together. 

Photo of Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone and her young daughter sitting on a carpet during a workshop. Tahbone is crimping a sealskin boot sole and her daughter is waiving one in her hand.
Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone with her daughter at the kammak (“skin boot” in the Iñupiaq language)-making workshop she led in 2019. COURTESY THE CIRI FOUNDATION.

The program specifically focuses on artists who reside in rural parts of Alaska to provide opportunities for communities that typically have fewer available resources, and where the cost of engaging in art activities can be expensive due to the difficulty of obtaining supplies. By creating a cohort of rural ARTShops leaders each year, the program also supports artist peer-to-peer networking to help artists feel connected to other creatives. 

A woman with a shotgun across her back and dressed in white and black camouflage hunting garments looks across a frozen lake in the winter.
Marlene Tilly searches for seals on Lake Iliamna to gather materials for Michelle Ravenmoon’s project on making a traditional seal parka in 2018. COURTESY THE CIRI FOUNDATION.

A hallmark of the ARTShops program is the intimate nature of the work. Many of the projects take place with extended families and in their homes or subsistence camps. In the first year of the ARTShops program, the late Teri Rofkar shared her knowledge of spruce root weaving with her granddaughter, daughter and mother in Sitka. For Michelle Ravenmoon’s project, she worked with her sister, Marlene Tilly, to harvest fresh water seals and practice making Lake Iliamna-style parkas with other women in her community. Rochelle Adams worked with her children to build a fishwheel on the banks of the Yukon River. Historically, Alaska’s arts were passed on within family groups, and the ARTShops program encourages sustaining and reclaiming this way of sharing knowledge.

While all ARTShops programs focus on artmaking, participating artists incorporate other cultural activities into their projects. Laresa Syverson integrated Unangam Tunuu (the language of the Unangax̂ people) into her fishskin boot project. Rochelle Adam’s project took place with immersion Gwich’in language during a Native Language Technical Institute. Lena Snow Amason-Berns’ project involved making Alutiiq “cellphones” which she incorporated into choreography for her dance group in Old Harbor, Alaska. 

Other ARTShops artists have incorporated subsistence activities into their projects. Bobby Itta’s project included harvesting and processing marine mammals to gather materials for making mukluk bottoms. Apay’uq Moore harvested and braided beach grass for weaving while engaging in subsistence fishing with her family in Bristol Bay. These harvesting activities are important to maintain so that future generations continue to access the knowledge that is needed to harvest and process materials used in art making.

Seven women pose for a group photo outside in front of a building sign with the words “den of the mighty nanooks.”
Nikki Corbett poses with six young women who each wear a qaspeq (cloth parka) they made during her workshop in Nome, 2022. COURTESY THE CIRI FOUNDATION.

ARTShops activities provide opportunities for bringing people together to support community-building. In a report about her parka-making project, Michelle Ravenmoon shared, “It was peaceful to watch the ladies interact and fall into a time-old tradition of gathering together, working on a community project, and enjoying themselves. We could have been gathered a hundred years ago, and it would be no different in our discussions. We told stories, laughed, and shared about our loved ones as we sewed. Many of the women said that this needs to happen more often. We remembered how important gathering and working together is.” Lily Hope shared that for her Chilkat weaving project participants “started meeting once every weekend. We grew as artists, as humans, embracing apprehensions in Chilkat weaving, finding balance in our lives when all we wanted to do was weave. Building comradery and continuing this art form that has been practiced for centuries.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, some ARTShops projects took place over Zoom, and others continued with artists working in artist bubbles. 

Nominations for the ARTShops program are accepted year-round. People with recommendations for emerging artist leaders in Alaska are invited to reach out to the CIRI Foundation to share their nominations, or to read personal stories about past ARTShops leaders’ projects

Author biography

Nadia Jackinsky-Sethi (Alutiiq) is an art historian, museum consultant and arts administrator based in Homer, Alaska. She is a program director at the CIRI Foundation, where she oversees a program dedicated to supporting customary Alaska Native arts practices. In addition, she is contributing author for First American Art Magazine and an occasional art history instructor. Nadia’s research is focused on Alaska Native artistic revitalization and Indigenous aesthetics.


This article was funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

This story is part of the Alaska Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.