Native Arts at the University of Alaska

Project Spotlight: Academic programs supporting Alaska Native arts.

ᓄᓇᖃᖅᑳᖅᓯᒪᔪᑦ ᐱᒋᔭᖏᑦ ᓴᖅᑭᑎᑦᑎᓂᖅ ᑭᒡᒐᖅᑐᐃᔩᑦ
Five art students watch as the teaching artist demonstrates skin-sewing techniques.

For more than fifty years, the Native Art Center program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) has offered art studio courses; lectures, demonstrations and workshops with visiting Alaska Native Artists and Elders; and artists-in-residence programs for Indigenous artists from across Alaska. Areas of study include studio arts in wood, ivory, stone and bone carving, woodblock printing, skin sewing, beadwork, basketry and mixed media for beginning, intermediate and advanced students. UAF is the only school in Alaska to offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Native Art and is one of only a few universities in the U.S. to offer a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Native Arts. MFA candidates are provided teaching opportunities and work alongside BFA students in the studio serving as mentors and sharing knowledge of their cultures. In addition, the Center workshops off-site in coordination with statewide art and village-based programs.

Five art students watch as the teaching artist demonstrates skin-sewing techniques.
Yup’ik artist Ilgavak Peter Williams (seated, second from left) teaches skin sewing to students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Art Center during a workshop. “To Continue or Be Remembered: Perpetuating and Sharing Alaska Native Arts” (still) (2021) [1]. COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA.

The Native Art Center was founded in the 1965 by renowned Iñupiaq artist Ron Senungetuk (1933-2020). After Senungetuk retired in 1986, Sugpiaq artist Alvin Amason took over as director until he retired in 2008. Amason came out of retirement to create and teach at the Alaska Native Arts program at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA).  The current director of the Center is Tlingit and Nisga’a artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner. Mehner spoke of the Center as a “place that really shows the University’s commitment to Indigenous creativity and Indigenous knowledge within the academic system and this value of being able to teach. Not to say we need validation from entities, but it is this validation that you can get a degree in Native arts. That it is just as valuable as a degree in painting or sculpture. And it shows a commitment not only to our past as Indigenous peoples in Alaska, but a commitment to the future and passing on these forms to the future generations.”[1]  

A female teaching artist stands at the left and holds a wooden mask carved by a female art student who stands at the right, and a smiling male artist stands in the center of the photo.
Koyukon Athabascan artist Kathleen Carlo-Kendall (left) teaches a mask carving workshop at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Native Art Center, and she evaluates the work by a student (right) as Center Director and Tlingit/Nisga'a artist Da-ka-xeen Mehner appreciates the work. “To Continue or Be Remembered: Perpetuating and Sharing Alaska Native Arts” (still) (2021) [1]. COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA.

The UAA Alaska Native Art department, led by Amason, offers classes that focus on teaching the history, skills, methodologies and traditions of the Indigenous arts in Alaska. Students learn the techniques of harvesting and preparing natural materials such as wood, bone and ivory for art making, and they learn how to use both customary and modern tools. Visiting Elders from across Alaska lead workshops where they demonstrate techniques used to create arts that represent their heritage and individuality. Students are encouraged to explore both traditional and experimental practices in order to find their personal form of expression. Classes in this UAA department can be applied towards a BA in Art. 

An art student points out features on the wood mask he carved to his instructor, who holds the mask and examines it.
Sugpiaq artist and department director Alvin Amason (right) evaluates a mask carved by University of Alaska Anchorage art student Brian Walker II. “Alvin Amason” (still) (2017) [2]. COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA.

Alvin Amason describes the UAA program as a “ kind of a community. It’s a village on campus. It’s not unusual to have several different generations represented in a semester.” He explained that the program highly values the participation of visiting Alaska Native Elders and artists: “It’s really a rich tradition. When we invite Elders in, I like to focus on ways of making things that are somewhat in peril or getting foggy, not a lot of people know how to do it. An example would be Mary Bourdukofsky from St. Paul who did a number of workshops for us on this campus. She was doing seal gut esophagus workshops with the real materials. It was very precious to have her in here, and she was one of the three Elders we’ve had in here since my tenure here that have passed on. This would have been her last workshop. I think it’s invaluable for the students who participated in this program at that time.”[2]         

An art student draws on an iPad as the instructor draws on a chalkboard.
An instructor teaches formline drawing during a Northwest Coast art class at the University of Alaska Southeast. COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA.

The University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) also provides opportunities for Indigenous artists through their department of Alaska Native Arts, Languages & Studies. The classes offered in Northwest Coast arts include formline design, carving, weaving and textiles. Students examine modern and historical materials from diverse perspectives to seek understandings of what it means to live in Alaska today and to connect with the lands, stories and peoples of Southeast Alaska. The classes at UAS feature guest artists and faculty members with deep cultural understandings and artistic expertise in their respective art forms. Instructors have included master carvers Wayne Price (Tlingit), master weaver Delores Churchill (Haida), and formline artist and master carver David Boxley (Tsimshian). UAS established a partnership with the Sealaska Heritage Institute and the Institute of American Indian Arts to offer an Associate of Arts degree with an emphasis in Northwest Coast Art to prepare students for work as a professional artist or scholar. Students can also work toward a degree in Alaska Native or Indigenous Studies, a degree in Education to teach Northwest Coast Arts, or participate in a transfer partnership with the Institute of American Indian Arts.


This post was edited from three University of Alaska websites entries at, and 

Quotes were added from transcriptions of selected footage from YouTube videos:

[1] “To Continue or Be Remembered: Perpetuating and Sharing Alaska Native Arts,” University of Alaska Fairbanks, Film and Performing Arts, produced and directed by Maya Salganak, at

[2] “Alvin Amason,” University of Alaska, filmed and edited by Zach Lane at


Author Biography

Dawn Biddison is the Museum Specialist at the Alaska office of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. Since 2002, she has worked with Alaska Native Elders, artists, educators, scholars, knowledge-keepers and cultural organization staff. Her work began with museum research, exhibition, catalog and website work. Since 2010, her work shifted to outreach with Alaska Natives through collaborative community-based cultural heritage projects that include facilitating museum collections access, artist residencies, community workshops, public programs and equitable documentation that respects Indigenous protocols and goals, supports intergenerational learning, and provides ongoing, accessible educational resources through print and online distribution. You can see examples of her work on the Smithsonian Learning Lab site, “Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska.”


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.