Wilsa Scott grew up in Shishmaref, Alaska, and as a youngster she learned beading and sewing from her mother and grandmother. But when she left her community, she lost her traditions, her support network, and her way.
Fast forward many years later, and on a snowy winter day in downtown Anchorage, she sits at a craft table, using heavy, waxed thread to stitch together a beaver fur hat.
“I’ve struggled with alcohol for a long time, but I am in recovery now,” says Scott, who credits her healing to a renewed engagement in her culture. “My mom is really proud of me doing this, because she would worry a lot before; she knew my struggle with alcohol.”
Scott is among a growing group of women who have found support with a program called IñuPiphany, a women’s cultural healing center that provides a comfortable space for up to 20 Alaska Native women who find themselves in challenging circumstances. Those challenges vary from substance abuse, to homelessness, to domestic violence, said program manager Helen Lane.
“We provide materials for the ladies, and they make one item for themselves and one for the program,” said Lane, who opened IñuPiphany, with the help of $35,000 from Providence Alaska, in November 2021. “It’s a safe, sober environment for them to come and learn beading, sewing, knitting and other skills.”
Lane said she modeled IñuPiphany off the successful Alaska Art Alliance (AAA), a carving cooperative that similarly brings together Alaska Native men and is run by Leon Kinneeveauk. Both programs draw support from the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Lane and Kinneeveauk grew up together in Point Hope and share a vision that includes celebrating the cultural value of Alaska Native arts and its connection to the people.
“The whole point is to learn different crafts to be able to become self-sufficient,” Lane said. “If we were in a village, our aakas (grandmothers) or mothers would help us learn our cultural activities, but here in a big city, it’s too fast-paced and we are too busy, or a lot of women don’t have their family around to learn from.”
Not only does the work help women focus on healing, she said, but their newfound skills could also be a source of employment.
“IñuPiphany was born out of the idea that we need a safe place for women,” said Alaska Native Heritage Center President and CEO Emily Edenshaw. “It’s been wonderful to watch how a lot of the guys at AAA donated their time getting IñuPiphany started, setting up and putting together all the sewing tables and the furniture. That really embodies and speaks to the values we were taught in our villages.”
The IñuPiphany program is structured in every-other-week blocks, featuring instructors who lead the women through their projects. Participants must sign up ahead of time and be sober to participate. Lane said Providence’s support helps fund the instructors, who not only teach a valuable skill, but also provide kinship among the women. Since November, the women have made such items as beaded jewelry, kuspuks and mouton mittens.
“In many of our languages, there is no word for art; it is just who we are as Native people,” Edenshaw said. “To design a program to help people become more whole really hits the mark.”
On this day, Elder Deborah Pungowiyi introduces beaver fur hat-making to a group of about 10 women.
She holds a piece of precut leather and points out the skin’s natural tendency to stretch in one direction, and not the other.
“Before you start, check which way it stretches,” she says. “The stretchy part should go ear to ear on the hat for a better fit.”
When the sewing begins, Pungowiyi shares tips on how to stitch so the material lies properly: “Start from the bottom and pull the thread up, toward you,” she advises. It is guidance not based on written instructions, but rather generations of one-on-one teachings from her elders, and those before them.
Scott, who has been to almost all the classes since the center opened, said the renewed purpose she feels from learning these Native arts has inspired her to stay sober and healthy. With a husband and three young children at home, she said she owes it to them to try.
“This is a whole lot of support, and I’m learning about my traditions and culture,” she said. “I like the social aspect, too. It’s easy at home to get sidetracked by TV or go to the mall or other things. Here I create something to keep.”
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