A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Raven Cunningham

Interviewer:  Alright, so I am here with Ms. Raven Cunningham, an Eyak artist. I was wondering if you wanted to just go ahead and introduce yourself a little bit and tell us what you do and what your art is about.

Raven:  Yeah, I’ll introduce myself in Eyak first. 

Iishuh, Raven Adu’xdA’eh, dAXunh q’Al xuu

Thank you for letting me be here today and being interested in asking me about my art work and what I do. We’re here in my shop right now, I have some bags and things that I am working on around. I’m from Cordova, not born, but raised. My family has been here for time immemorial, I’ve been doing my artwork since 2015. as a business professional, however I was raised in the arts. Being here in Cordova, you have ample opportunity to learn from well known artists from around the state. Growing up, I would go to these different culture camps and take different classes that were held with the tribes. I was raised with heavy influence from my Indigenous background, with the native dance and different culture camps held in the summer that are basically teaching you traditional arts. They have indigenous foods and dance and things like that, and so it’s something that’s always been involved in my life but that I’ve taken a step further and am doing professionally.

Interviewer: When this project came up with our group, our professor gave us this list of artists that he compiled together, but he said You can choose any Alaska Native artists. And I said we have Raven and my whole group looked at your Instagram and your website, and they’re like, “Yeah, of course, she’s the one!” But I think one of the first questions that the group had was, how did you learn to sew, who taught you? What were some of the techniques that you learned and what did you find important when learning how to sell?

Raven: Yeah, I went to this culture camp in Tatitlek and there was a local artist at one, and she’s actually been with me every step of the way. Now, she’s taught me all about native plants and has really inspired me from a young age to the work that I’m doing today. When I was young at camp, we made little crafts or treasure holder pockets. And that inspired me and kind of just took off from there. I would start not just sewing traditional materials, but I would go home and start sewing my own shirts and making my progress and things like that. So it just became a hobby that I dabbled in through high school. It wasn’t until I got out of high school when I decided to take it seriously. We took Native Arts class in high school, and so that kind of really got me into a more professional place, I guess, with sewing. I just learned my techniques a little bit better from different local artists coming in and teaching you. After high school, I started being mentored by my cousin Diana, who is also a renowned skin sewer. She learned from her mom, Monica, and then her mother, and so on and so forth. So I pulled into that side and they have a business that has been handed down from generation to generation. Diana, she just stopped me down in her room when I was helping her with all of her things, and she had me start my own projects. One day she said, “Alright, it’s time for you to start buying your own fur and getting your own materials and doing this yourself.” and I was said, Alright, let’s do it. Do you wanna help me out? And so I went from there having her being the main mentor in my life really kind of setting me down and making me focus on the professional aspect of it and showing me how to do business plans and apply for grants, so that I could be where I am today.

Interviewer: Wow. I had no idea you could apply for grants to support your business?

Raven: Grants were one of the only ways I was able to get started on this business Non profits and different grant funders have supported my business so that I can take it a step further. For example, I got a grant to buy my sewing machine, and then I got a couple more grants to help buy furs and things like that. Because it may be a business that seems to be very profitable, the turnaround of purchasing materials and going and getting the materials is a huge amount of money to go into the business. And so you really don’t start making a turn around for years after. I’m still trying to pay off some of the materials that I got. Going out and harvesting them myself is a huge expense and sometimes we’re unsuccessful, so that whole trip that we paid for with the fuel and whatnot, you come back with nothing. So yeah, it’s definitely a lifestyle.

Interviewer: What inspired you to take the leap of faith and become an artist, just through mentorship and some of these grants that really helped you as well?  From just following you online, you do a lot of sales yourself, but you also have some of your products in local businesses here in Cordova and around the state? 

Raven: Yeah, so I have a work shop here in Cordova. A lot of my work that I do is showcased by different outfitting businesses. There’s actually one in Bristol Bay that kind of showcases my work, and I have one in Anchorage, one in Juneau. I’ve had people have me at their different businesses, and then I also sell myself and do marketing outreach to people all over the United States. I just actually sent something to an island on the east coast the other day.

Interviewer: Oh, wow. Is that the farthest east that you ship something before?

Raven: I actually have had some sales in Northern New York, so I think that’s kind of been my furthest. I have quite a bit of clientele that are on the East Coast, it gets pretty cold up there, so… Furs keep you warm!

Interviewer: So how often do you communicate or work with other artists and work on collaborative pieces? Do you try to keep most of the work or do you just create most of your designs on your own, or do you try to work with other artists?

Raven: The majority of my work is just for myself, but I have done a lot of collaborative pieces with other people, like my cousin Diana. I’ve worked with her on a couple of pieces. My friend Shelby, who owns Medal and the Mountains, we’ve collaborated on a few pieces and have made earring sets and different types of jewelry that we’ve used with my traditional materials and her metal works.

Interviewer: Those are amazing. I’ve seen them.

Raven:  She does really good work. And then I’ve also collaborated with a couple of other artists just sporadically. We talk on Instagram and I’m always up for doing collaboration pieces. I think it’s a lot of fun to work with somebody else artistically, and I feel like you learn a lot from that as well. You’re not just seeing art in your perspective, you’re seeing art from another perspective, which really helps me individually grow as an artist.

Interviewer: Definitely, yeah. So while you’re making your art, how do your emotions or your daily worldview affect what you make? We have a couple of questions that fall under this: What inspires you most? Your dream project?  What are you currently working on, or your favorite completed project?  What do you go through day to day affecting that?

Raven: Yeah, so being in my space, it’s always a space to decompress. If I’m frustrated by the world, I just come down here and leave that at the door and just focus on something that inspires me. This last year especially I’ve grown the most with my business, mainly because just the stress of being home by myself or with my husband was there. This summer there weren’t many harvest opportunities with Covid and not really having any berries and going and harvesting… Not allowed to be around other people that whole time we were in covid, there was no harvest thing going on. So I really use my little space, craft space, as an outlet to kind of just decompress those emotions of isolation and try to get my creativity to be a pacifier for that.

Interviewer: Wow, that’s amazing. So I don’t have a hobby or I kind of do, but I like looking at a lot of artists and I’m always like, Wow, that does seem like a place where you can just kind of escape in a way… In a positive way, it’s a positive escape.

Raven: It just keeps your mind healthy! I find a lot of joy in creating what I do. Just trying to do new things and test myself and do something that I haven’t done before. I recommend finding something, getting interested in using other artists as inspiration, I think it is amazing. I think art is meant to be shared and inspiring, and if I can inspire at least one other person to wanna start creating, I think that means that I’ve done some good!

Interviewer: Right. What advice would you give to another aspiring artist, whether, indigenous artist or just artists in general?

Raven: I would tell them to not hold back. I think to make mistakes is that it is what it is, you just gotta go for it. You can’t be like, Oh well, it’s gonna be too much money, or, Oh, it’s gonna be too hard. What if somebody doesn’t like my stuff or, Oh, I messed up, I don’t wanna continue this project. I have mess-ups almost every day. Nothing is perfect. That is why it’s handmade, my labels are crooked or sometimes my seams aren’t lining up correctly, you gotta just keep going with it and keep pushing yourself because if you don’t, then you don’t really move forward as an artist, so that’s my advice.

Interviewer: So on your website, you label yourself as a traditional artist, how would you define traditional art or… What’s your definition of that?

Raven: Traditional artist, I feel can be defined in a few different perspectives. Some traditional artists that I see their art looks like it’s been made in the past, and I also see traditional artists as someone who is using materials that are used traditionally from the past. So for me, my traditional work, and like I say on my website is I’m a traditional artist, but with a contemporary style, so I’m utilizing my materials, materials that have been used for generations and generations by indigenous people, but bringing them to you in a more contemporary way, so for example, like the bags, these purses are definitely a contemporary style, but the materials that I’m using are very traditional.

Interviewer: And so along those lines of after your definition of traditional art, what do you think being an Alaska Native artist means today?

Raven: For me, being an Alaska native artist is being able to showcase my indigenous identity through my work. So as an artist I use my perspective through my Instagram page and my website. I don’t wanna just showcase the work that I’m doing, I wanna showcase the intent that is behind it, and really the power that comes with a subsistence lifestyle. All my furs are harvested with good intentions in a traditional way. Traditional contemporary way. And we try to find small businesses in Alaska tan materials and furs. And then just having that good intention and I guess the raw emotion of knowing that this is not just been done by me, it’s been done by many, many people before me.To have learned his craft by some of those people, and being able to take it as my own and doing it with my own twist. Doing it my own way, but still highlighting the fact that I’ve learned from all those inspiring artists, I think is what makes it Indigenous, because indigenous art is something that’s not just created or came up recently, it is something that has been here, passed down and family, and so really, you’re just kind of replicating the same type of intergenerational art, just with your own style.

Interviewer: So talking a little bit more about heritage and your indigenous culture, how much exposure did you receive to your native language? Because from what I read, there are no more first-language speakers… Is that correct?

Raven: Yeah, that is correct. I wasn’t very exposed, I was not exposed to Eyak at all, none of my family spoke. Even at our culture camps, it was never spoken. It was more Alutiiq, a more prominent language here. So for me, trying to learn my native tongue it’s very difficult, especially when we don’t have that many people speaking.

Interviewer: Right, right. And so are there any sort of traditional designs that you use that are kind of passed down to the generation, so all of your work is considered Eyak because that’s where your family is and that’s how you’ve learned, you’ve learned through your relatives?

Raven: Something that’s special about Eyak people is that traditionally, we were always the grounds of trade. We had the Athabaskan, we can get the Sugpiaq, Aleuts, and people all coming to the grounds of the Eyak to trade and share different items. And so it’s kind of been in a melting pot since the beginning. Yes, people have adopted different ways from other people. Eyak, it’s really just a melting pot of different designs and ways of being with our art and our work. So when you say predominantly or you say in each design, it really is because of that person’s heritage. If I’m really following the ways of my people traditionally, it would have been shared by the Eyak people. I find a lot of our artwork similar to the Tlingit people. That was a group that when it came to art, I found similarities.

Interviewer: I’ve taken a couple of college courses and am learning about all the Alaska native cultures. I feel like it’s important that I do the work to understand more about where we’re from or where we live and the original people. It feels like I’ve read the least about the Eyak people, and so having a connection like you and seeing what you do, it’s so awesome, because you always hear about the Eyak people supplying trade to other groups of people. Eyak occupies this little sliver of land, but from what I’ve read it’s just as rich with heritage as well.

Raven: Yes, definitely, and we were actually one of the first indigenous groups to be colonized, and so I think that’s why you don’t hear our native tongue, and it was taken away from us very early versus these other larger Indigenous groups who had a lot more warriors or who were able to keep language bearers. Other groups fought against the people who came in to colonize. So not only being one of the first to be colonized, but to be such a small group, it was really difficult to continue our ways of being with that being so heavy on us.

Interviewer: So, wrapping up, in what ways have you noticed cultural value is impacting your life, and what sort of cultural values do you live by or do you hope to include in your work? You said earlier, harvesting with good intention is one of the principles that you practice?

Raven: So my husband and I definitely practice a subsistence lifestyle. That’s how I connect with my ancestry, and I find it very prominent when I’m out on the land taking animals or plants and using them to sustain my life. So yeah, subsistence is a big one that has been passed down. Being respectful to not only others but to my relations to the plants and animals that live on these lands too. So not only is giving thanks and being respectful to them, giving thanks to the materials I harvest but having respect has been a huge part of my life. Passed down from my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents, I always taught respect, not only for other people but for myself. And respect for the materials that I use. And I think that really, those two things are what I align with. Defining myself as being indigenous, I guess, and that’s what it comes down to for me?

Interviewer: Yeah, I love that. Are there any traditions that you wanna pass on to your children? I know that you just had your son almost a year ago this spring right? 

Raven: Yeah, that’s something that we definitely wanna pass on to him is knowing his heritage, he is an Eyak-Athabaskan baby. I would love it if he could learn his native language. I know that he will definitely be learning respect and a subsistence lifestyle from us, and I hope, like me, that he can go and attend different camps and conferences to continue to learn who he is as a person.

Interviewer: What an ancestry. I love that. I know also having a little Athabaskan baby, I know it feels so much more important about doing that work or providing the opportunities and putting in the work for our children. For sure.

I just noticed I missed a little section of questions about your work, I’m gonna ask you a couple more, so pricing your work, tell us a little bit about how you price the items that you make?

Raven: I think about that just as my breakdown of work. So I actually have this formula first, and it’s really difficult to explain but… With the influx of prices and some furs being more expensive than others, each piece is different. When it comes to a bag or somebody wanting one over the other, I try to keep them about the same price so that it’s fair to people, I want people who purchase my items to be able to have the things that they want without having to break the bank. I don’t want things that are over­priced or underpriced. So, how I break it down is the amount of material that I use, so I have a seal and I’ve kind of average size of it, now I just know it, but I used to have to do the breakdown of size. Then I go off of the other materials that I use, how much that is, and then my time. I have to break down my time. Now, I kind of have an average, it takes me about four to five hours to make a purse, it takes me about five to six hours to make a pyramid and things like that, and so that’s kind of how I price it down. And then usually I have my retail price, what I can sell in stores and on my website I can come down so that I can sell to those stores ‘because they have to buy a wholesale, and if I have to make sure that I can still make the profit when selling to those stores, so that’s kind of how the price gets broken down.

Interviewer: Does your work comment on any sort of current social or political issues, would you say that your work or the way you do your art kind of does that?

Raven: Yeah, I honestly try to stay out of a lot of political stuff, even though it seems to always come back out. You come up the back alley, trying to come at me with everything, as it does with most. I think for me, I just try to keep true to what my work is about, and it’s about showcasing my subsistence lifestyle and how I was raised here in Alaska and using the traditional materials that I get to use, and so I try to not do a lot of politics on my work or a page, as much as I can.

Interviewer: Yeah, I get that. Okay, this one’s the last question, and it’s the one that I just came up with regarding covid, I feel like Alaska native art just exploded on social media! All of a sudden, it was just this high stake commodity, first come first serve sales, auctions, raffles, the engagement for Alaska Native artwork in general seemed to explode. Do you think that throughout this last year of the pandemic has helped or hindered your work, or has it just stayed the same?

Raven: I definitely think it’s helped my work in the fact that it’s gotten my stuff, my products and my things out there more. But I don’t think it really did better or worse, I’m still seeing the same results. I have the same clientele I have had, I’m receiving new clientele who’ve been purchasing my work, but I haven’t seen those crazy numbers like others. Well, I take that back. I have had some crazy surprising sales. The Instagram sales at times just go back and forth, so it’s like crazy, and then sometimes it’s like things posted and then they take a while, so I think I’m doing about the same business as I was before, covid.

Interviewer: Well Raven, it has been so great talking to you and getting to hear about the work that you’re doing and creating. Thank you so much for letting me interview you for my class, my group and I really appreciate it.

Raven: I’m really thankful again for you guys, thinking of me to do this, so… Thank you.