Art and Healing at the Alaska Native Medical Center

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By Bryn Barabas Potter

Alaska Native Medical Center Craft Shop

Alaska Native Medical Center Craft Shop. All photos this article: Bryn Barabas Potter.

fur clothing and Alaska yo-yo

One of the large cases at the Alaska Native Medical Center has a fur-clad mannequin demonstrating the use of an Alaska yo-yo.

The Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage is known for its support of Native peoples in several important ways. First, of course, is by providing top-rate medical care. Second is by allowing the Auxiliary, a nonprofit group led by a cadre of volunteers, to manage the Auxiliary Craft Shop. Third is by housing the Auxiliary Heritage Collection’s artworks in museum-quality displays.

For artists to be represented in the Auxiliary Craft Shop, the rules of participation are basic. Artists must have recognition from the State of Alaska as being eligible to receive care at this facility. Artists set their own prices, then there is a markup for hospital needs. The Auxiliary provides things that are not in the hospital’s budget, such as the purchase of a meat freezer to hold donated seal and fish, important foods to share with elders; a handwashing station installed in the pediatric unit, so that children can wash before and after holding video game controllers while they wait for appointments; and scholarships for Alaska Native students.

The Auxilary’s focus has always been to serve the Native people. They have a sterling reputation as being fair to artists and fair to customers. Additionally, they hold the Native Peoples Bazaar yearly, on the first Saturday in December. There is no charge to participate. Artists can have their own tables, but they must sign up in advance.

On a recent Friday, the shop had a constant influx of buying clients, plus three artists bringing in objects to sell: a coiled basketry plaque, sealskin bracelets with beaded edges, and masks of hide and fur. The craft shop’s focus is to supply authentic, handcrafted work to help out the community, and to add to the appreciation of Alaskan Native art.

Ruthelle Kingeekuk

Sewing bag by made Ruthelle Kingeekuk (Siberian Yup’ik of Savoonga) from bleached walrus gut and alder-dyed sealskin. Needles, needle case, ulus, buttons, and crochet hooks of walrus ivory, sinew, wood, and metal; artist unknown.

With moccasins and kuspuqs, carved ivory jewelry, fur hats and gloves, wooden grease bowls, metal sculptures, greeting cards, and so much more—there is something for everyone, with prices ranging from $2 to $5,000. Sleek soapstone bears, signature works by Mark Tetpon (Iñupiaq), and a baleen basket with a carved ivory eagle-headed lid by Don Johnston (Qagan Tayagungin Unangax̂) were just some of the works recently available. The volunteers also stress that walrus ivory is legal. The ban on elephant ivory led to confusion which has brought down the interest in carved ivory items, adversely affecting Alaskan carvers. [More information]

It’s about the community. As generations of artists bring in their works, they run into friends and family coming from throughout the state. There are always lots of aunties about. As many of the volunteers have worked there for decades, the staff and the artists enjoy close relationships. The volunteers are experienced at choosing prime artworks and are pleased to be supporting the artists.

Doll by Ellen Savage (Athabascan)

A doll made of moose hide, glass beads, and beaver fur, holding a willow basket, by Ellen Savage (Athabascan from Holy Cross).

The Auxiliary Craft Shop does not advertise. It maintains a low profile so as not to be in competition with the galleries and shops in Anchorage. Its focus has always been to serve the Native people, and that is done largely by word of mouth. When you visit, please note: the shop has limited hours, and credit and debit cards are not accepted.

While the craft shop is worth a visit on its own, it is only half of the story. The Auxilary Heritage Collection is simply outstanding. Beginning decades ago, craft shop managers chose excellent examples of art to keep instead of sell. This too is about the community. “It has been rewarding to the Auxiliary to install the art collection where the people live, work, and heal,” a brochure for the permanent collection reads. “Patients from the remote villages needing medical treatment in Anchorage instantly have a feeling of belonging, of being at home. The Alaska Native Medical Center is one of the finest examples of combining art and architecture to create a healing atmosphere.”

After a visit to the Craft Shop, take the nearby elevator up to the fifth floor. As the door opens, jaws drop in awe at the sight of a fur parka with pieced fur detail, a seal-gut anorak with feather embellishments, and a bright red and blue wool button blanket. The large exhibit case is filled with Alaskan treasures. Small numbers identify the pieces on the acrylic signage — item name, artist’s name, and village or tribal affiliation.

Alaska Native art

Children’s items, including a basketry rattle by Anna Beavers (Yup’ik, Goodnews Bay), moccasins by Mabel Pike (Tlingit from Douglas), and silver bracelet by Jan L. See (Tlingit).

Take the stairs down to the next floor, stopping to look at the square display boxes inset into the walls, filled with harpoons, dolls, miniature baskets, silver bracelets, bone and ivory carvings, and more. Larger items, such as soapstone carvings and masks, have individual cases. Nearby seating areas with wide windows have splendid views of the Chugach Mountains. You may be accompanied by expectant mothers who, in the early stages of labor, walk up and down the stairs. The pediatrics area has a fun case filled with basketry baby rattles, infant-sized moccasins, and beaded vests. A carved wooden mural, Following Our Ancestor’s Trail by Clarissa Rizal Hudson (Tlingit, T’akDeinTaan) and Bill Hudson, decorates the meditation chapel’s exterior wall. After returning to the main floor, finish your journey with a last-minute purchase at the craft shop. Or stop at the ANMC Food Court for a snack before heading on to other Alaskan adventures.

Clarissa Hudson mural

“Following Our Ancestor’s Trail,” wooden wall mural by Clarissa Rizal Hudson (Tlingit, 1956–2016, T’akDeinTaan clan of Hoonah/Glacier Bay) and Bill Hudson. Cedar, copper, shells, brass, paint, 7 feet × 11 feet. Photo: Bryn Potter.

Alaska Native Medical Center Craft Shop and Auxiliary Heritage Collection
4315 Diplomacy Drive
Anchorage, AK 99508 | map
(907) 729-1122 | link

Hours: 10:00 am – 2:00 pm M-F. 11:00 am – 2:00 pm, first and third Saturdays of the month
Closed on federal holidays
Credit and debit cards not accepted

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