A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Interview with Willie Goodwin

Interview with Willie Goodwin.
Interviewers: Katie, Jami, Bertha

Katie: [00:00:02] So, do you guys want to ask questions, do you want me to ask questions?

Jami: [00:00:11] Do you have, Katie, do you have your computer up too, to ask the question to willie.

Katie: [00:00:16] I don’t but I have my phone here and it has the list on it.

Jami: [00:00:22] Ok. I Have the list in front of me if we wanted to take turns or if we all just want to write notes at the same time for all the questions. How do you guys wanna work it? Either way, I’m cool either way.

Katie: [00:00:38] Thats good either way, um, I’ll just start out if that’s ok. And then we can kind of chime in?

Jami: [00:00:41] Perfect.

Bertha: [00:00:41] Ok.

Katie: [00:00:44] OK. All right. So um, I guess I’m just curious, You live in Kotzebue, Is that where you were born and raised.

Willie: [00:00:54] Yeah.

Katie: [00:00:55] Yeah? Cool.

Katie: [00:00:58] All right. So. You make Ulus. Yes?

Willie: [00:01:05] Yeah. Yes.

Katie: [00:01:06] And they’re beautiful, My dad loves them every time he comes. He um, he Looks at them and I’m going to get him one for Christmas but he absolutely loves your ulus. And I think they’re, they’re beautiful too. Why did you start. Making Ulus?

Willie: [00:01:27] Well it was a need. My mom needed ’em. My wife needed ’em. Y’know, for people needed the women needed ’em.

Katie: [00:01:35] Yeah it’s not easy to find.

Willie: [00:01:38] Yeah. So When I was uh, pretty small I was waching my grandfather making ulu. And He told me that the handles gotta be just right, the handles gotta be good. Otherwise the women will find every excuse not to finish working out whatever she’s doing. Yeah. Like her hand is tired or something you know.

Katie: [00:01:59] Yeah.

Willie: [00:02:00] They come up with excuses to uh, not to finish what they’re doing. Well if the ulu’s good they can sit there all day and work.

Katie: [00:02:08] Yeah um. I’ve never used a really good ulu. I have one of the tourist ones and I don’t like it! I think that I’m tainted because of that because I don’t think I’m using something that was actually meant to work and function. So. I think that’s really interesting.

Willie: [00:02:29] Yeah.

Katie: [00:02:30] So the right grip do you..

Jami: [00:02:46] I have a tourist ulu and then I have a custom ulu. I dont have one of Willie’s ulus yet. But I think the custom ulu is when somebody makes specifically for you um, it’s kinda curved to what you need it to do.

Willie: [00:02:49] Yeah I think, I think it must. And do you do them custom like if you’re making them for someone do you fit it right to their hand.

Willie: [00:02:57] I could.

Katie: [00:03:00] That’s cool. That’s really cool. So you decided when your mom needed ulus and then your wife needed ulus.

Willie: [00:03:09] She’d be working and then. She’d lose them or something and then, say I need an ulu so.

Katie: [00:03:18] Yeah. So what do you use. What do you make them out of.

Willie: [00:03:23] I used to use to uh, get a saw from the store and cut it. Cut the blade out and then make the handle.

Katie: [00:03:35] Thats cool I didn’t think of that before. I mean I looked. That wouldn’t have ever occurred to me to do that. So what do you cut it with?

Willie: [00:03:45] Regular metal cutting saw.

Katie: [00:03:49] And do you use wood for the handle?

Willie: [00:03:51] Yeah. Anything, wood, bone, ivory… antlers.

Katie: [00:04:01] Cool, That’s cool. Ok. So, since we’re kind of looking at this as an art because I believe it is. Do you have a process a creative process you go through.

Willie: [00:04:12] No.

Katie: [00:04:12] When you make your ulu.

Willie: [00:04:12] *Laughs*.

Katie: [00:04:12] Like do you have one in mind.

Willie: [00:04:12] Ok, heres what happens. It’s like I’m getting ready for christmas, right?

Katie: [00:04:12] Right.

Willie: [00:04:12] I’ve been using some very hard wood that I get from Anchorage, and it’s uh, grown in South America somewhere down there. And I, I have a template that I made at home for the size I want to cut for either a large ulu or smaller ulu. And then I’ll cut them out and then use the uh. A small uh, sanding belts, belt sander? And sand then down to what I want and then I’ll continue sanding them down with different grades of sanding material till I get pretty smooth. And then I have uh, a small saw that I use to cut into the wood so the metal can fit in there tight. And then I put a couple of pins on there so they don’t fall off. That’s a process.

Katie: [00:05:31] That’s a good process. Thats a lot of work.

Willie: [00:05:32] And then I sharpened it.

Katie: [00:05:35] Which also adds a lot of work.

Willie: [00:05:37] Yeah.

Katie: [00:05:37] Yeah.

Willie: [00:05:39] Yeah.

Katie: [00:05:40] And you wanted to be really sharp or. The sharper the better?

Willie: [00:05:44] The sharper the better yeah. And then. Years ago while my mom was alive when I started to make some for sale I developed a uh, a sheath for em, made out of leather so, theres a leather shop in anchored buy leather from down there or order it, in. I have the necessary tools to rivet the things together. And uh, Or the rivits and also for the button piece that holds the ulu in place. so I do that now.

Katie: [00:06:29] That’s nice.

Willie: [00:06:30] But what I, what I’ve done lately is the last four or five years. I found out there was a young man in Anchorage that would cut leather using a laser cutter you know, so, I sent him a template and he cut them out for me.

Katie: [00:06:50] That’s nice.

Willie: [00:06:51] With the holes in all so, y’know its just a matter of putting them together.

Katie: [00:06:55] Yeah that’s really nice. Saves a lot of time I bet.

Willie: [00:06:58] Saves a lot of time yeah.

Katie: [00:06:59] Yeah. Because cutting a thick leather like that’s very tiring. That’s cool. With a laser cutter?

Willie: [00:07:08] Yeah.

Willie: [00:07:09] And its computerized right.

Katie: [00:07:11] Yeah, that’s cool.

Willie: [00:07:13] Yeah.

Katie: [00:07:15] I’m constantly amazed by what people are doing. That’s really cool. And you engrave on yours don’t you.

[00:07:23] Well I, I started. What I found out was uh, using electrolyte and a machine and getting a stencile made I can have the engraving done electronically.

Katie: [00:07:39] Cool. So do you send them, you send them out and then have them done?

Willie: [00:07:42] I send a stencil. I send a draft to a stencil out to a company that made the machine. And they’ll make a stencil for me.

Katie: [00:07:50] Cool. And then you engrave it that way. That’s cool. Very smart.

Willie: [00:08:06] High tech.

Katie: [00:08:07] Yeah! yeah, who knew that making ulus could be so high tech. That’s cool, thats really cool. So, Do You enjoy making ulus?

Willie: [00:08:16] Yeah, I did. But you know as I get older here just, trying to find a time is hard.

Katie: [00:08:23] Yeah.

Willie: [00:08:24] And then what I did for a few years was I contacted a, a machinist in Anchorage that, that could order the blades already cut with the type of steel I want.

Katie: [00:08:41] That’s nice.

Willie: [00:08:42] So, I did that for a long time. In fact thats the only way I do it now.

Katie: [00:08:48] And then you still have to sharpen them?

Willie: [00:08:49] Yeah, I just, all I do is sharpen them, yeah.

Katie: [00:08:51] And attach the handles.

Willie: [00:08:52] Yeah.

Katie: [00:08:53] That’s nice. Cool.

Willie: [00:08:56] You getting into business?

Katie: [00:08:58] No, I’m not I’m not. Actually no. That’s even too much work just that I can’t even sharpen my own knife. So… I need to learn stuff. But no I’m just curious. So what is making ulus mean to you? We talk a little bit about tradition in our class and I don’t know. I mean it is a traditional thing you’re making but you, like you said you’re doing it very high tech now. But if you do it still, so it must mean something.

Willie: [00:09:35] Yeah cause that’s, most of the women up here, you know they grew up cutting with a ulu and thats what all they use

Katie: [00:09:45] Yeah. I have, I have some friends and that’s all they do with their fish.

Willie: [00:09:51] Yeah.

Katie: [00:09:53] And I’m, I’d be lost if I had to do that because I haven’t learned the skill yet but it’s amazing actually.

Willie: [00:10:00] I know you can. I can make the different sizes you know, the blade size.

Katie: [00:10:06] Yeah.

Willie: [00:10:06] Depending upon what you’re working on or cutting.

Katie: [00:10:09] So what would you use like a larger blade for?

Willie: [00:10:14] Big meat.

Katie: [00:10:14] Like Karibu.

Willie: [00:10:16] Karibu, moose, yeah.

Katie: [00:10:17] And then the smaller ones for fish?

Willie: [00:10:19] Yeah.

Katie: [00:10:22] Fishy fish or the salmon.

Willie: [00:10:25] And the white fish yeah.

Katie: [00:10:25] I Haven’t caught any white fish yet. Fish fish!

Willie: [00:10:29] What are you doing up here?

Katie: [00:10:32] Not subsisting enough I’ll tell you that. But yeah. No, no white fish yet. My husband probably hasn’t either and he’s probably more put out about that than I am. So, when was the first what, when did you make your first ulu?

Willie: [00:11:05] I don’t know, it goes back a long time you know. I grew up fixing ulus from my mom, changing the handles. You know as a young boy.

Katie: [00:11:18] Yeah. You definitely perfected that.

Willie: [00:11:24] Yeah, yeah.

Katie: [00:11:24] Do You pass that down to your kids your grandkids.

Willie: [00:11:28] Yeah, my grandkids I showed how with tools I have.

Katie: [00:11:32] Yeah. That’s awesome. So do they, do they fix for your wife or for their moms.

Willie: [00:11:40] Yeah. Yeah they do.

Katie: [00:11:43] That’s cool. That’s really cool.

Willie: [00:11:45] Of course the mom and grandma really love them cause their grandson made them.

Katie: [00:11:48] Yes that’s right. Yeah. That’s significant it really is.

Jami: [00:11:55] It probably would like them even more so cause they’re doing it by hand.

Willie: [00:12:01] Yeah.

Katie: [00:12:03] Yeah. Well and they don’t have to find somebody to do it. They can say Hey!

Willie: [00:12:10] And they don’t have to go to Wal-Mart either.

Katie: [00:12:12] Right. That’s right. Yeah… All right. So um. If you could pass on any advice to another artist who was going to make ulus. What would you tell them? Or what would you say to your grandkids.

Willie: [00:12:41] Gotta make it careful, make it fit the woman so you know Right handed or left handed. You can put two. You can offer to handle for left hander off shape put the right hand. so they get a better grip.

Katie: [00:12:53] And if it’s not done right then they won’t, it won’t

Willie: [00:12:55] Well they, They just throw it around like any old knife you know.

Katie: [00:12:58] Yeah.

Willie: [00:13:01] But if it’s done right and they like it. They’ll certainly take care of it.

Katie: [00:13:11] Yeah. When You do you take care of this stuff that treats you good and you can’t live without. And uh, when you’re out catching fishy fish you need a good knife. Pile up pretty fast.

Katie: [00:13:28] All Right.

Willie: [00:13:28] And a blade. You know I, I uh, used to use the temper of the saw because the bottom part where the teeth is the hardest part so it don’t get dull real quick. But the blade that I get made now I have them temper them to about 50 Rockwell hardness so it stays hard and it don’t bend when you’re trying to cut something.

Katie: [00:13:54] Yeah its good its sturdy.

Willie: [00:13:57] Yeah, you can get him harder but you’re harder to sharpen.

Katie: [00:14:01] Yeah.

Willie: [00:14:02] Yeah.

Katie: [00:14:04] Drives a woman nuts when she can’t sharpen her ulu.

Willie: [00:14:06] Yeah I would say yes. To have to wait and ask somebody to do it.

Jami: [00:14:19] And I agree.

Katie: [00:14:20] And that sounds, Actually it sounds like a really complicated process to me because I don’t understand. I mean like you’ve explained it really well but. You knew all of that. Yeah like you knew all of that and if I was just said make an ulu I wouldn’t I wouldn’t know. So I think that’s really interesting. How long does it usually take you to sharpen one to get it just right?

Willie: [00:14:48] If you have, out in the country somewhere or you’re camping and you just have a while it takes a while. But here I’ve got the power tools you know with the right sanding belt. well, it don’t take long.

Katie: [00:15:01] So is wood your favorite handle or would you like Antler or ivory better?

Willie: [00:15:07] Doesn’t make any difference to it to me. The Wood is the easiest and faster. And sometimes ivory is hard to get.

Katie: [00:15:17] Yeah, I would think so.

Willie: [00:15:18] Plus It’s. Slippery when it gets oily.

Katie: [00:15:22] Well that makes sense too.

Willie: [00:15:23] Yeah.

Katie: [00:15:24] Yeah, the wood’s more porous. cool. So do you ever make em when you make em do you ever make em purely for decoration or do you always make them working.

Willie: [00:15:38] I could. I could, you know.

Katie: [00:15:40] yeah.

Willie: [00:15:40] But most of them what I make are, are for work. And whenever I go see one of my relatives or someone you have my ulu in a showcase, I said: I didn’t make that to show it off, I made it for you to use!

Katie: [00:15:52] Yeah there’s something about um, I don’t know. They’re so beautiful I see why people want to display them because they are really beautiful. But too, There’s something about working with something that’s made to work really well but that’s beautiful at the same time that’s that’s cool. That’s a real talent. All right does anybody else. I’m sorry. I sort of hogged all the questions. Does anybody else want to ask any?

Jami: [00:16:42] Willie have you ever taught a class or you know, not just passing it down tradition-wise or culturewise. But have you ever taught um, like a group of people on maybe the beginning on how to make an ulu?

Nano cool during any bad need. I did it before. That’s the only time. You could say you know every time. One word.

[00:17:29] OK so this one switch life experiences have impacted you the most.

[00:17:38] I guess and your art and you’re making it loose.

[00:17:42] Which life experiences. You know we’ve talked about like dull knives and helping your mom. I don’t know but what I’ve also done you know. I.

[00:17:58] Can get it. I’ve had general made in remembrance of somebody like a path to a special order too. Because I did that my mom and people thought no. They wanted one for their mom to our grandma.

[00:18:16] So I get the central medal to date. You were bornD.T. died. And their name on there.

[00:18:26] That’s a really beautiful way to honor them. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:18:29] That’s cool. What is the stance. What the stencil dental is something that. I don’t know what the name of the material made out of what is some kind of a plastic that you can put on the metal and then I use an engraving machine that has the electrolyte on it that I press on it and it just burns right into the metal instead of spreading all over.

[00:19:27] And you talked about going over for any pack days and teaching how to make you lose. Yeah. I think my boys actually came home with a couple and that was cool. Oh okay. Yeah. And so would you encourage kids to learn how to do these things like to make an igloo.

[00:19:48] Yeah. There’s always somebody always there you know it’s a way to make money if you want to.

[00:19:54] So there’s always a market for a loop all the time.

[00:20:01] Yeah. To really make them food to the people to make them all or time.

[00:20:05] But back to Wal-Mart or don’t work for everything you know.

[00:20:12] They don’t work for much. Yeah.

[00:20:21] Oh man I just had a thought I lost it though. And like you said they have to be. They have to be done right to work really well.

[00:20:28] And if you want an igloo around here like if you ask anybody they say well we’ll be good.

[00:20:36] So yeah you’re it. I mean well Jimmy Well there’s some other people who don’t do it.

[00:20:43] Put Well I haven’t seen any of that.

[00:20:48] I don’t know. Not too many options here and cut to you. Or in the region for that matter. Most of the guys make computer wives or daughters you know. So the villages that’s something there still people are still doing.

[00:21:09] Yeah. Well it was longer women were cut off.

[00:21:13] Yeah well there will always be women to get that thing.

[00:21:21] Yeah.

[00:21:23] So traditionally blue is a woman’s knife. Is that right. That’s right. But a lot of men.

[00:21:30] Have told me you would rather use a knife that’s interesting.

[00:21:36] I think it’s way easier to use it to move than a vague still need to learn. Obviously I need to work with.

[00:21:47] That’s cool.

[00:21:55] So do you do you make use. You said you used to make knives. Is there anything else that you make that you enjoy making. Mostly just lose.

[00:22:06] But really I can make anything all right what Yeah.

[00:22:12] God gave me a gift to make things with my hand. You enjoy that. Yeah.

[00:22:26] That’s really cool. All right guys think that very well. Yes I agree.

[00:22:32] It’s beautiful you guys have any other questions.

[00:22:44] Now as you said earlier it is easier to work with a nice little handle if you can like a car like that.

[00:22:54] I know you get the harder one now from South America. But how does that work compared to using an amber.

[00:23:04] First of all you’ve got to find the antler. No know and then figure out what. What size of a handle you want from it. And you’ve got to cut it out and send it down because allergies have knobs on them if you don’t know kind of be.

[00:23:29] What does your wife prefer for her handle. What would.

[00:23:41] You Birch from upriver Stop it. It good to.

[00:23:48] Purchase software hardware. Hardest wood we got here.

[00:23:58] Unless you find a root a tree root that’s another thing.

[00:24:05] So do you order a bath. Oh sorry.

[00:24:09] But that I’ve never heard of you. Well you can find him all over the beach you know you can.

[00:24:18] Just find a piece just pretty dry. It’s hard.

[00:24:24] That makes sense it’s true. I didn’t think of that either.

[00:24:33] What is the best we know. When I make fishing handles were for fishing where she fish and stuff.

[00:24:45] Yeah. Cool like Jenny’s for all free like.

[00:24:54] Would handle like like from Greece to something I wrote.

[00:25:08] Yeah you see a lot of them up here on the beach. I just wash up.

[00:25:15] Want a dry real dry if you give one wonder that you are not a burden to make what you.

[00:25:38] Make sure you listen to your wife.

[00:25:40] Make it I make my own way.

[00:25:49] People love me so I break up.

[00:25:58] So how do you. So because I’m curious like how do you measure like how it fits in their hand.

[00:26:06] Just look at your hands. You know what it is and try it. So with this look on and tell me I can make it cool. Like the width of the.

[00:26:28] Because it is important that if you have a good grip when you work with something on effective cheap oil it makes it very slippery. Probably too.

[00:26:49] Every woman should have to. Do you think like a large one and a small one. Or at least the medium sized at least the medium size that both those.

[00:27:07] Another one that she says she needs another one another.

[00:27:16] Do you have small ones or do you have a large one I only have a medium one.

[00:27:29] We’ll see. He says you’re good if you have at least a medium one may.

[00:27:34] But it’s always good to have one.

[00:27:39] Good point. Point. Not if you’re going to have native villages you need more.

[00:27:48] Time to eat.

[00:27:53] Yeah so it’s an everyday tool basically like you would use it like this.

[00:28:04] Boom.

[00:28:11] I know I say that all you need is rarely so for cutting up fruit and stuff that your house or.

[00:28:27] I need one more talk about it right now. Go go.

[00:28:34] But not at Walmart. Oh yeah I forgot to close that door.

[00:28:49] All right. So if you could if you could. I don’t know. Do you consider this an art. Cause.

[00:28:58] I know we all are. But is it something you consider in our.

[00:29:04] I continue to say it is an al Qaeda but it’s well done on your part and very beautiful.




Willie Goodwin, Kotzebue, Alaska