NEWS_Sealaska Heritage to sponsor artists-in-residence from Savoonga

NEWS_Sealaska Heritage to sponsor artists-in-residence from Savoonga

Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: December 22nd, 2020

Couple to perform dances on Wednesday, public invited

Aug. 21, 2019

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) will sponsor two Alaska Native artists-in-residence from Savoonga who specialize in ivory carving and pieces made of walrus stomach and other materials harvested during subsistence activities around St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.

Arlene Annogiyuk Waghiyi and her husband, artist John Waghiyi, Jr., will work on pieces in SHI’s Delores Churchill Artist in Residence Studio in Juneau from Aug. 23-29. The public is welcome to come meet them. In addition, the Waghiyis will demonstrate dances from their region from noon-1 pm, Wednesday, Aug. 28, for the public at SHI. Their work also will be available for sale in the lobby at SHI.

Arlene is one of only a few people who specializes in making baskets from walrus stomach. The process of preparing the stomach is time consuming and delicate. After the stomach is removed, she scrapes the edible lining from it slowly and gently, careful not to tear the stomach. Then, she soaks the stomach in water for at least three to four weeks. During that time, the water must be changed at least three times a day and kept cold.

“This can be hard when you get into bed and then remember you have to change the water,” Arlene said. “A long time ago there was no running water and it was even harder.”

Once the stomach is done soaking and bleached, the Waghiyis cap the holes at the ends and blow it up with air to dry outside. It’s important that no holes are made during the scraping process or else they would have to be patched.  They are traditionally dried outdoors and that gives it that white bleach.

Arlene makes baskets from the stomachs that were used traditionally to harvest and store greens, berries, roots and edible plants.  She likes to adorn the pieces with polar bear hair, bleached seal skin and traditionally dyed seal skin. John, who is a whaling captain, last harvested a polar bear nine years ago when he was out on the ice pack 27 miles from Savoonga.

“A young male gave itself up to us. Hunters will come across a polar bear and see it as a gift to harvest. We eat the polar bear meat and use the skin for various purposes.” John said.

The Waghiyis live a subsistence lifestyle, harvesting animals around St. Lawrence Island for nourishment and using some animal parts for art objects. John makes small earrings, rings and large sculptures and figurines from walrus ivory. He also makes sculptures from ancient whalebone and vertebrae, and drums made with walrus stomach material.

The couple has been exposed to art practices their entire lives but became more active at least 20 years ago when they were “young, hungry and poor,” John said. “We have been carving for 50 years at least.  I used to sell rings for $2 in high school.”

“Art is a really important part of our subsistence life. It supplements our subsistence way of life by allowing us to purchase much needed supplies, gas and shells. Subsistence is life. Spirituality is what defines us as a people.” he said.

SHI President Rosita Worl said it’s imperative for the public to understand the importance of these ancient art practices, as there have been widespread misconceptions about the sustainability of materials such as Alaska walrus tusk or ivory. Organizations outside of Alaska have attempted to ban the sale of Alaska ivory, confusing it with ivory illegally taken from other animals around the world, such as elephants.

“The pieces made of walrus tusk and other bone by Alaska Native artists stem from an ancient and sustainable practice. Alaska Native artists are perpetuating a custom that contributes to their cultural and economic survival, and they are doing it in a sustainable way,” Worl said.

John will also complete a walrus skin blanket for the Nalukataq, or blanket toss, a new event this year at the Traditional Games in Juneau co-sponsored by SHI. A blanket used in March was borrowed from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Kathy Dye, SHI Media Specialist, 907.321.4636,

Caption: John Waghiyi holding a walrus stomach full of air and in the drying process; Arlene making a walrus stomach basket adorned with polar bear hair. Photos courtesy of Arlene and John Waghiyi.



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