History of Alaska Native Art

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The culture of the Alaska Natives are diverse and rich, their art forms are a representation of their skills, adaptation, history, tradition, skills, and nearly 20,000 years of ongoing life in some of the earth’s most remote places. These art forms are not known and seen apart from the state of Alaska as per the distance from the world’s art market. With respect to history, “art” as a decorative idea didn’t traditionally exist amongst these people. Objects were practical, though they were decorated in ways that conveyed images of physical or spiritual activity. It was not until Asians and Europeans made initial contact with the traditional people of coastal Alaska during the 17th century that non-utilitarian art things started to be traded for cloth, metal implements, and foodstuffs like sugar, tea, or flour.

Numerous objects were traded due to their value as regards their functionality: clothing woven of grass, harpoon tips made from the walrus’ ivory tusk; rainproof outerwear got from membranes located in the intestines of seals; and animal skins known for their durability and warmth. Steadily, these items were made to be more decorative, in such a way to improve their value in trade. For example, a walrus tusk could be etched with the aid of numerous hunting scenes showing the coastal people’s life; later, this technique would be called “scrimshaw” when they returned to New England via whaling ships. Elaborate beadwork’s patterns were initiated as the beads came to prominence via trade; all types of Regalia employed for ceremonial purposes – masks, hats, woven clothing, and dance fans – turned to souvenirs for the explorers and whalers of the 17th, 18th as well as the 19th centuries. Even Southeastern Alaska’s towering totem poles find their way back to the United States’ East coast, where the basis of numerous museum collections is formed.

All are usually undergoing evolution, blurring the uniqueness between what an art critic of today might elect to categorize as “contemporary” versus “traditional” Native art. And international, contemporary art values have a spot in Alaska Native art. Life-size bronze castings, wall-size paintings, marble sculptures and three-dimensional mobiles, to mention a few categories, fill galleries in addition to bears made from whalebones, cribbage boards carved from the entire length of walrus tusks, fine jewellery made from silvers and copper; musk ox horn and Nephrite jade polished into bracelets, bentwood boxes made from coastal white cedar trees; as well as baskets of infinite designs and shapes, from woven spruce root or birch bark, the baleen or beach grasses from a bowhead whale, all delicately woven and formed into vessels of every size. With the coming of the internet, all the art forms can be appreciated and seen from anywhere.