Buying Alaska Native Art
Tips for travelers when shopping for authentic art and crafts
Native-made art and crafts are beautiful and distinctive reminders of a well-enjoyed trip to Alaska. Knowing what to look for in authentic Native art can help you go home with a valuable keepsake and beloved piece of Alaska culture. The Anchorage Museum Store was featured among Condé Nast Traveler’s Best Museum Shops. Mark Weber, the Museum Shop’s manager, offers some tips for buying authentic Native art.
Alaska is home to several culture groups – Athabascan, Inupiaq, Northwest Coast (Haida, Tlingit, Tshimshian,), St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Sugpiaq (Alutiiq), Yup’ik, and Unangan (Aleut). Traditionally, the physical environment for each group influences the art forms from that area. For example, the beach grass of the Yup’ik culture inspires basketmaking; forests in southeast Alaska provide the material for totem poles; and sea mammals in northeast Alaska provide the material for creating sculptures in ivory and whalebone.
- Look for mastery of technique. In baskets, for example, the evenness of the weave and the symmetry of the shape reflect a higher quality of work.
- Notice the piece’s “finish.” Carvings -- whether walrus ivory, wood, whalebone or soapstone -- should have a finish that shows attention to detail. Smooth or textured, the finish should enhance the look of the piece. Inlay work should be clean with a tight fit.
- Look for a clean design. An item carefully made enhances its design. Stitches should be neat on beadwork and skin-sewing; inlay of baleen or ivory should be smooth.
- Materials should be legal. Artists from the cultures indigenous to Alaska are thoughtful in using appropriate and legal materials in their artwork. There are materials such as raw walrus ivory, baleen and whalebone that only Alaska Natives may use. Even feathers used on masks should be legal to own and must comply with the Migratory Bird Act. Eagle and duck feathers do not.
- Check for authenticity. The shop or gallery where you purchase a piece should be able to tell you the artist’s name, cultural background, village or region of origin, and the materials used in the piece. Having documentation of the piece enhances its value over time.
- Notice tradition or innovation. Some pieces – like carvings of mythical animals or figures hunting, fishing or dancing – reflect the tradition of the artist’s culture and stand as hallmarks of a particular heritage. Others, like many whalebone sculptures, showcase innovation by incorporating contemporary sculptural shapes into a traditional art medium.
“Taking all this into consideration, mostly you should pay attention to what you like,” says Weber. “If you enjoy the piece, that can be reason enough for purchasing. A piece of art will always evoke memories of a special time and place.”