Charlotte Jensen Native Arts Market
By Bryn Barabas Potter
Even if transportation requires bush planes and boats, the Charlotte Jensen Native Arts Market (CJNAM) brings people together. The market’s atmosphere is incredibly welcoming, filled with smiles, good cheer, and amazing art, and like Alaska, CJNAM is big. This year 210 artist spaces filled the common areas of the Dimond Center, the only facility in Anchorage large enough to host this event.
CJNAM takes place during the Alaskan Fur Rendezvous, known as “Rondy.” which began with trappers bringing furs to Anchorage. In 2019 Rondy celebrated its 84th winter festival, featuring ten days of fur auctions, the start of the Iditarod Race, and a plethora of fun events.
This year, CJNAM ran from February 27 through March 3. It is strictly an Alaska Native arts market, and a BIA number is required for artist participation. There, visitors might witness a welcoming song from Mathew Skaga Dewitt (Tlingit) from Wrangell. When he is not at his table, Mathew wears the button blanket that he made and his father’s headdress, as he drums and greets guests.
Pam See (Tlingit) remembers when her mother, Mabel Pike a Tlingit from Douglas Island, received a phone call from Rondy organizers asking her to get some artists together. Because of their loyalty to her, Mabel was able to gather 13 artists at the last minute for the very first market. Some of them still participate, including Jerry Lieb (Yup’ik), also known as Sivaluaq, a drum maker, artist, and third-generation storyteller from Bethel, who has a story behind each artwork. Remembering Mabel, Jerry noted she was “instrumental in getting this going, it was one of her crowning achievements. She knew the importance to the Native people to be able to sell their works.”
Pam explained that her mother was a moccasin maker who loved beading. For years Pam and her brother, retired silversmith Jan L. See, came to CJNAM with Mabel. These days Pam makes dolls, little mukluk earrings, pouch necklaces of sealskin and beads, and more, using fur or fish skin.
Umara Nupowhotuk/Buchea (Siberian Yupik/Iñupiaq), has shown at CJNAM from the start, more than 30 years. “My first memory is of beads; we had them in our hair, on dance headdresses,” Umara recalled. Now she beads headdresses, and beadwork embellishes her bleached caribou-hide masks with customary Siberian Yupik tattoo designs in honor of her grandmothers. Umara loves to sew, creating dolls and hats from sealskin and sea otter fur. She also brings carvings from Saint Lawrence Island artists who can’t come to the market.
CJNAM is filled with families—spouses, aunties, uncles, and babes in arms. Basket makers include sisters Gemma Gaudio and Colette Brantingham (both Yup’ik), mother and daughter Carrie Herman and Emily Johnston (both Cup’ik), and June Pardue (Alutiiq [Sugpiaq]). June, who also paints, beads, and sews fish skin, was next to her husband Charlie Pardue (Athabascan), a master knife maker and jeweler. Julian Iya (Siberian Yupik) is a carver who works walrus ivory, whalebone, and baleen into representational sculptures. His mother, Veronica Iya, who beads necklaces to enhance Julian’s ivory pendants, noted: “We live off the land, eat the meat, and use the rest in our art, including fur, bones, tusk, teeth—any and all parts of the animal. We don’t waste. It’s important for people to realize subsistence is our survival.”
Charles Lane Jr. (Yup’ik) commented, “I put a lot of meaning into my art, and I put my kids through college with my art.” Lane showed a fascinating mask he carved from bowhead whale vertebrae, with grooved rogue waves, inlaid baleen for stars, and a tuft of polar bear fur for the North Wind. He also sold walrus ivory carvings made by family members, including a walrus skull with carved tusks, hunted by his son Lance. Proudly, Charles said the tusks are an inch and a half longer than the former world record holder. A passel of his grandchildren, playing under the table, also helped customers pick just the right carvings to take home.
When family can’t be involved, Native Corporations step in. As Nadia Jackinsky (Alutiiq) explained via email: “The regional corporations in Alaska were created as part of our Indigenous land claims, and the state of Alaska is divided into twelve regional groups that each have a corporation.… It’s a little bit of a different structure than reservations in the lower 48 states.” A 13th corporation represents Alaska Natives who live out of state.
Louie Kowunna (Iñupiaq), who staffed the Tikigaq Corporation of Point Hope’s table at the market, said he was thankful to “gain experience meeting other people, and letting others see the art.” A couple of other artist cooperatives were also represented, including one from Barrow.
CJNAM does not pay demonstrators, but some artists work at their tables, where visitors may watch nimble fingers testing drumhead tightness, weaving grass into baskets, or bringing animals to life in soapstone or acrylic paint. Geneva Hobson (Dena’ina Athabascan), from Bristol Bay, painted a grizzly bear on canvas at her table. The bright paint colors echoed the colorful cotton kuspuqs (overshirts) seen everywhere, with designs from basic calicos to Hello Kitty, Star Wars, and Hawaiian prints.
Family is central to the market’s organization. It’s namesake, Charlotte Jensen, a former nurse at the old Public Health Service Native hospital, had great respect and love for Alaska Natives and their art. She ran a craft show for Rondy before Mabel Pike asked her to take over the Native arts market. Charlotte’s husband, John Jensen, current co-chair, handled logistics including set up, storage room operations, and fire code compliance. Co-chair Marilyn Skau has formed a family among the artists, and she checks in with them during the year, making the market as smooth as possible with registrations and onsite support. The Ashlock family proudly sponsors CJNAM annually, providing over two miles of space and security at no charge in the Dimond Center, one of the very few family-owned shopping malls in the country.
Perhaps Pam See best summed up the CJNAM experience when talking about her mother, Mabel Pike: “When I get lazy, I keep hearing her say, ‘Keep sewing.’ My mother had great respect for the other artists. She was always encouraging them to keep up their art. Sometimes the money is there, sometimes not. You come out with friendships and the knowledge that you shared your heritage and culture with people.”