A map of Alaska with the Kodiak region highlighted.
Organization: Alutiiq Heritage Foundation
City: Kodiak
Region: Kodiak
Program Area: Arts, Culture, Humanities \ Museum
Grants Received:
2014: $16,500  2006: $26,000
2013: $127,867  2005: $1,000
2012: $24,279  2004: $17,284
2011: $90,000  2002: $19,341
2010: $29,704  2000: $10,000
2008: $25,000
2007: $22,715

Sven Haakanson and the art of collaboration

Mission Statement
Alutiiq Museum Venture Fund

To preserve and share the traditions of Kodiak's first settlers, the Alutiiq people. Collections, exhibits, programs, and publications tell the Alutiiq story, promote cultural pride, and invite people of all heritages to share in the celebration of Native culture.
In the green-walled corner of Kodiak's Alutiiq museum, I survey masks, twelve remarkable masks. Carved out of wood, elaborately adorned with feathers, shells, lacquered in white, rust, black and other shades of earth. But these are not ancient masks; they were carved this summer. And they were not fashioned by native elders or master carvers; they were made by students, Native and non-Native alike, part of a summer art program sponsored by the museum.

Sven Haakanson, museum director, shows these off with the same pride he displays in the ancient Alutiiq pieces just feet away in a glass showcase. The Star Man piece, carved out of whale vertebrae, with a single eye and an O of a mouth found at the south end of the island. Another figure, the size of a fingernail, carved out of ivory, elbows on knees, head cocked pensively. An astonishing fist-sized head, out of bone, looking for all the world like it fell from a Mayan temple. The kids' masks
and the mysterious ivory and bone figures occupy the same space, the same green room, melding
cultures, languages, epochs and histories. This is no accident.

A photo of a man holding a mask in front of his face

Photo by Sven Haakanson
Spacer Image "We have to realize that we have one world and it's getting smaller all the time. If we don't all figure out how to work together, we won't get anything done," Haakanson explains.

Getting things done is a skill Haakanson has mastered in his position at the award-winning museum. So much has been accomplished in the revitalization of Alutiiq art and culture he was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant two years ago. The return and display of the Pinart collection of Alutiiq masks from a museum in France; efforts to preserve and revive the dying Alutiiq language; discovery and cataloguing of hundreds of petroglyphs on the south end of the island begin the list.

The spirit of collaboration that brought the masks from France to the museum walls, and that hung the non-native masks on the same museum walls, is at work now on an immense project that promises to share more of the richness of Alutiiq art with the people of Alaska. Haakanson calls it, simply, "The Russian Project."

On a trip to France in 2006, Haakanson made a side trip to meet with Russian curators from the Kunstkamera museum in St. Petersburg that housed more than 500 pieces of art and culture from Kodiak Island. Originally gathered by Russian collectors between 1784 and 1867, they've been cared for in the St. Petersburg museums since. Haakanson has made several trips and seen the immense holdings.

"Every time I go, I learn something new, see something our people used to make." There are hunting tools, clothing, baskets, drums, rattles, an open boat, and what Haakanson calls "the most complete collection of Alutiiq mask in the world."

"Four still have the original feathers, attachments, and even the attachment bindings," the director says softly, awed. "They have gutskin jackets 160 years old and they are just as supple as ours are today. 160 years later and still soft? How did they do that?" he exclaims, with still fresh amazement.

These rare pieces of Alutiiq art and culture were likely created by Haakanson's own ancestors, but they will not return to their original home. They are, however, working together on a catalogue to share these amazing collections. While it maybe sometime before an exhibition happens, Haakanson is not stymied or discouraged. He has learned much about the benefits of collaboration, and is focused not on "repatriating those items, but in repatriating knowledge."

I listen carefully to these words and watch Sven's face, imagining how it feels to see your own cultural history behind glass in another country, but Sven is solid. "They've cared for this collection for over 200 years. We need to work with them so we can learn from these pieces and move forward."

Collaboration and inclusiveness has propelled both the museum and Alutiiq art into the center of Kodiak's culture. "People used to think of the museum as something for Alutiiqs. Now they are starting to understand that this history belongs to all of us. And the art we're producing now is on another whole level . . . returning a sense of dignity that was lost."

Spacer Image A photo of a group of people in France

Photo by Sven Haakanson

Leslie Leyland Fields is the award-winning author of six books, including "Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Far Edge of America." Her essays have appeared in "The Atlantic," "Orion," "Best Essays Northwest," "On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors" and many others. She lives in Kodiak, Alaska with her husband and six children and teaches creative nonfiction in Seattle Pacific University's Master of Fine Arts program.

Home page photo credit Clark James Mischler