Native Artists Demonstrations

Since 1988, summer visitors to the Museum have enjoyed the opportunity to observe and visit with Alaska Native artists at work. From mid-May to mid-September, artists representing cultures across Alaska come to Sitka to demonstrate their art for residents as well as for travelers from outside of the state.

Tlingit beader Cass Pook
Tlingit beader Cass Pook

The program started with Janice Criswell, a Tlingit weaver from Juneau, who volunteered a few hours over several days to demonstrate her art for visitors. In its early years, the program remained small, with just a few artists participating each summer. In 1996, when the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum received an $11,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to include artists from other regions of the state, the demonstrators program took a leap in scale. Since that time the Friends have received other grants from the NEA, as well as from the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation, enabling the program to attract artists from throughout the state.

The Friends were awarded a $20,000 grant from NEA to support the program in 2009 and 2010. The Friends brought to Sitka artists representing Athabascan, Inupiaq, Yup’ik and Aleut/Alutiiq cultures. Local Tlingit have taken part in the popular program as well.

The artists come to Sitka to teach, but some of them also come to the Museum to study the Sheldon Jackson collection and learn more about the traditional methods and materials used by earlier artisans. In 2002, an Athabascan elder helped museum staff repair a century-old birch bark canoe as part of the demonstrators program. Cleaning, stabilizing and adding a new prow to the craft all took place in the museum gallery. More about the canoe project.

Myron Wheeler, Inupiaq carver
Myron Wheeler, Inupiaq carver

The Museum houses nearly 5,500 artifacts from all of Alaska’s major cultural groups. Most of the pieces were collected by the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the Museum’s founder, over a century ago. One of Jackson’s goals in establishing the Museum was to help future generations of Alaska Natives learn how their forebears lived.

The Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum, who raise funds locally and pursue grants from national sources, support the demonstrators program. For example, the 2002 season was the second year of a 2-year grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts. World Explorer Cruises, for a second year, funded one out of town artist. Fundraising is ongoing and donations are accepted any time at the Friends’ Museum Shop.

For many years, the Museum has had a partnership with the Southeast Alaska Fine Arts Camp; both entities contribute funding for the program and they share at least one artist each season. Charles Pullock, Inupiaq ivory carver, has filled this position over several summers.

The Museum uses the artist demonstrators program to link historic and contemporary Native culture for visitors. The opportunity to watch and speak with Native artists is, for many visitors, a highlight of their trip north. The demonstrators also help Alaska residents learn more about the culture and history of Alaskan Natives.

"The program opened up ways of living not known before," one Museum visitor wrote recently. "The artist was warm, patient and tied me to his culture." "The artist spoke with us of personal stories and history."

Page last updated 04/26/2013