Indigenous art. Indigenous perspectives.

Tava Kairaiuak Amplifies Queer Representation in Native Art


Challenging the Binary

Tava Kairaiuak

Tava Kairaiuak. Image courtesy of the artist.

Visual artist and graphic designer Tava Kairaiuak (Dena’ina/Yup’ik/Aleut), who grew up in the Dena’ina homelands of the Athabascan people in Anchorage, now lives in Seattle. Through a growing range of media, Kairaiuak challenges binary understandings of gender as we relate them to Indigenous artistic expression.

Kairaiuak recently graduated from the University of Washington, receiving his bachelor of science in environmental science and resource management. He previously guided tours for the Alaska Native Heritage Center and currently serves as a tribal environmental consultant.

His work includes beading, quillwork, skin-sewing, hide tanning, and combining his interest in digital art with his Alaska Native culture. Many of these skills each have gendered associations—beading, for instance, is said to be a women’s art in Yup’ik culture. Part of Kairaiuak’s artistic journey has been traversing these boundaries as a Native person who is transgender, treading a line of respect for his Alaska Native cultures and authenticity in his gender expression.

As an Alaska Native now living in an urban space, Kairaiuak has been thankful for the ways that social media has connected him to artists across Alaska and beyond. Instagram has been a source of collaboration, relation building, and finding inspiration and support.

Q&A with Tava Kairairuak

Tava Kairaiuak

Athabascan floral beaded hide pouch by Tava Kairaiuak, 2023.

KG: How did your work at the Alaska Native Heritage Center impact your art?
TK: I worked there for five years, so it was a big part of my teenage years. The job gave me the materials I needed to do the things I wanted to do. I learned how to carve [walrus]ivory, weave cedar, and how to sew skin—I got access to teachings and materials through the center. Access to their archives also helped me a lot.

KG: What changes have you seen in representation of queer Alaska Natives and two-spirit representation?
TK: Living in Seattle has really opened up everything for me—there was not a huge queer community growing up, especially queer Native community [in Anchorage]. Social media has also made Alaska Native arts more visible, and I’m seeing more queer-led Native arts spaces. Being queer and Native used to be two separate identities. I think the intersectionality conversation has been really helpful.

Tava Kairaiuak, mixed media.

Mixed-media self-portrait piece by Tava Kairaiuak with beadwork, hide, and fishskin, 2023.

KG: How has being away from home changed your art?
TK: When I was growing up doing traditional Alaska Native art, it was very focused toward mak[ing]art exactly how it was, thousands of years ago. It was interesting to see the techniques, but it was very limiting to what I could create. Being able to be more openly queer has helped me come out of my shell—I can be queer, Native, and an artist. Living in Seattle has let me examine my cultures from a different perspective and be open about myself and my knowledge.

KG: How do you find support and inspiration in Seattle?
TK: I’m surrounded by queer Native people and that’s really been something that has helped me come out of my shell. I get support from the community on [the UW]campus, mostly my friends and all of that. And social media has been crazy. When I started my Instagram, it connected me with artists in Alaska who I’ve never met before, which was pretty interesting. Also, for some reason, UW has a lot of Alaska Native books. So I try to do a lot of my own research and get inspiration from that. The Anchorage Museum’s archives have old-school traditional work that I like to look at for inspiration, especially to bring my own culture into [contemporary]graphic design work.

Tava Kairaiuak, 2023

Digital print by Tava Kairaiuak, 2023.

KG: What do you hope to see next for Alaska Native queer and two-spirit artists?
TK: We need more queer Alaska Native art. Alaska Native cultures can feel very gendered—trans people who are Native have a hard time especially with [regalia]. There’s no room for being gender fluid, you have to pick [male or female]. Like, “This is a man’s parka, and this is a woman’s parka” and things like that. It would be interesting to see more queer people doing traditional arts because I feel like we could blur the lines more of what people see as gendered regalia. I want to see more queer people doing traditional art because we have been doing it forever. It’s hard to make people understand that queer people were here for a long time until colonization [made it unsafe].

I hope to see an opening up of traditional practices. Back home I present more feminine, but I’ve always done art stuff that men were only supposed to do because I wanted to do it. So I hope that we can break that open a little bit because people should be able to do art if they want to.

KG: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
TK: The mural I did for the Alaska Native Heritage Center was cool. I was excited to do that on Dena’ina quillwork because we are very known for our beadwork. Quillwork is an even older art form, and I love the material. I’d love to have more Alaska Native all over. I got some moose hide, and now I’m experimenting with painting on it. I’d like to do a big piece this summer. I want to do a project on transformation, making binders out of moose hide and sealskin. I’m [also]working with my [Alaska Native] corporation, doing some graphic design for them.

Tava Kairaiuak mural

Mural by Tava Kairaiuak based on Dena’ina quillwork at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage, AK.


You can see Tava Kairaiuak’s work online here:

The CIRI FoundationKariel Galbraith (Tlingit) is the FAAM Alaska Native Art Writing Fellow, a project supported by The CIRI Foundation as part of their Alaska Native Art Writing Initiative.


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