I love the Anchorage Museum. We love it. It turns out the last date before Timm experienced parenthood was at the Anchorage Museum. That night Timm and I shared a dinner outside at Spenard Roadhouse and then drove downtown to walk around the museum. On free night. 🙂
We loved it. We enjoyed learning more about Muktuk Marston. We saw photos of his friends in Noatak in the posters from I am Inuit. We saw Fred Machetanz paintings of Achapak, my great uncle. We saw artwork that challenged the inherited white-centered society. Nicholas Galanin work. Sonya Kelliher-Combs. The pink bear. The big, colorful bear painting. It felt nice. Right. Good. We went “home” to our Airbnb.
Five hours later my contractions started. A few hours later, Henning with his long legs and sweet busy-ness was born. The Anchorage Museum will always be a special place for us. I was thrilled when the FORUM magazine asked if I’d write a piece about an exhibit everyone should see.
(Originally printed in FORUM magazine’s Spring issue)
I got downtown and took 30 steps from the car that day, forgetting to pay for parking. I was already a bit late because, like the stereotypical “villager,” I misjudged traffic. A bit anxious, I walked back with my credit card and rented the tiny spot of land to leave my rental car. I had two hours. I wouldn’t get a ticket this time.
So I reset. I took deep breaths and walked.
Walking to the Anchorage Museum, it was one of those calm, clear, and sunny spring Alaska days. The kind of day some of us in Unalakleet beg the weather to wake up to. “Please let it be sunny and calm tomorrow,” because when it is, the earth gives the best conditions for ice fishing. There is nothing like ice fishing on those days when the sun’s heat just begins melting the snow. When you can take your gloves off, bait your hook, and leave the gloves on the snowmachine. When you can take your jacket off and fish in a sweatshirt. When everything is warm. Your face. Your hands. Your feet. Your friends from town you really only see when ice fishing tell stories. Of the big fish they caught the week before. Of the nothing they got the day prior. After the long winter, we find relief from the cold and finally enjoy the sun.
I did not know an exhibit at a museum could bring these same feelings.
As someone who grew up in Unalakleet, Alaska, where no institutional museum exists, I perhaps have a narrow view of what a museum is. Having visited museums in New York City and Florence, Italy, I view museums as places of colonial construct. Italians show Middle Eastern biblical figures as pale white Romans in their celebrated art. The very placards next to white Jesus tell with an authoritarian voice that the art is to be revered and is exceptional. I guess, maybe. If you are into propaganda. In museums like this all I see is a power play. If Jesus was a brown person, why is he shown as white? And why am I paying good money to view this?
At the American Museum of Natural History, artifacts likely stolen from our communities are shown as possessions. Like it’s our privilege to view sacred items from my ancestral history behind a glass case. Like it’s my good fortune to pay hard-earned money to view objects once used by my great-greatgreat grandparents to live and thrive. “Here, world,” this museum said to me. “From our good grace and our right to possess what we want, you can see our greatness we achieved through thievery and deception.”
It’s cold, right? Harsh.
And then you see Extra Tough: Women of the North.
I finally met the museum’s Chief Curator, Francesca DuBrock, on that spring day. We had emailed numerous times for various unrelated projects, her from her Anchorage office, me from my home in Unalakleet. From the emails I got the sense of her solid, focused energy. From meeting her in person, I was inspired. Compassion usually evokes light, airy, and soft feelings. Compassion in Francesca is grounded. Solid. Her compassion mixed with confident truth telling is the grit and love that brings exhibitions like Extra Tough to life. Her example taught me you don’t have to be brawny to be strong.
Francesca walked me through the entire exhibition that showcases the life of women in the North. It reflects our history. It shows modern day. While the bulk of the exhibition shows the experience of women in Alaska, some pieces show life of Sáami in Finland, Inuit in Greenland, and other northern areas in the world. Extra Tough: Women of the North does not separate or discriminate. Throughout the entire exhibition, a woman feels as if her history and experience is indeed a part of the rich fabric that makes up the story of who we are in northern latitudes.
A nice contrast from the typical macho, mustache-wearing, lands-claiming pioneer or the crab-throwing “Deadliest Catch” image usually evoked of those seen as extra tough in Alaska.
“Obviously it has the pop culture reference to xtratuf boots which are a thing here,” Francesca said of the exhibition’s title. She said her colleague Aaron Leggett thought of the title Extra Tough: Women of the North and it just fit because it’s “thinking about toughness as not only in this masculine sense but about resilience and care and warmth and compassion,” she said.
And beauty. One of my favorite displays is a clear case showing makeup. Some makeup made for women in France in the early 19th century, right next to makeup created today by Black, Indigenous, and LGTBQ+ entrepreneurs, made for whomever wishes to wear it. From this one case I knew I’d enjoy this visit. Seeing the items in the same case forced me to visualize a world where women are equal. There is no fake constructed hierarchy. It’s dismantled. We’re the same. We’re equal. Intersectional feminism exists. We belong in the same space. There’s strength in community.
Viewing the lipstick I recalled a story my friend Greta tells of her grandmother who spent a lot of time at camp up the Squirrel and Kobuk Rivers. In the morning she’d look in the mirror and apply some lipstick. “You never know who might stop by,” she’d say. I pictured her photo above that display case. Strong.
It sounds silly but seeing that makeup displayed, I felt safe. What should be taken for granted by all women is not reality for many women with darker skin tone than white, pink, or peach. As an Iñupiaq writer, I’ve often dealt with imposter syndrome because so much of what’s reflected in the media, in school curriculum, and in museums is not who I am as an Indigenous person. The feeling and sense that I don’t belong is replaced with, “I can take up space. I can take up space in a society made by others and for others. I can assert my voice. I belong here.” I got all this from makeup. In a case. In a museum. In the first five minutes of my visit.
And this idea continued. In another clear case, a Yu’pik story knife sits beside factorymanufactured vintage paper dolls, sitting next to a Yup’ik or Iñupiaq paper doll made with crayon, sitting next to a Fiona Fisherman Doll Magnet currently sold on the Salmon Sisters’ website.
“There’s not really a hierarchy between art, objects, archival photos, and even things like social media and viral videos,” Francesca said. “It’s really meant to be a blended presentation.” And the entire exhibition truly is. The exhibition shows the experience of women in the North today and in history. It shows the experience of women in leadership and in domesticity. It shows the experience of women in whatever skin tone your body shows to the world, in the many ways we have contributed and continue to contribute today to life in Alaska. For me, it gives a sense of togetherness in a world that today feels more divided than ever. A sense so solid you carry it throughout the exhibition as it grows heavier, strengthening your spine, fine-tuning your vision of who we can be.
Not everything in the exhibition is an item from the Anchorage Museum collection, Francesca said. One borrowed piece is an Indigenous short film by Sáami director Marja Helander showing twin Sáami ballerinas in white ballerina costumes performing throughout landscapes in Finland, showing how “civilization” alters land and the organic beauty in the Arctic. For me, the film questions the idea of what civilization is. Civilization does not equal Western development and government. Civilization does not equal fossil fuel-dependent societies. Civilization does not equal land ownership.
The film, Birds in the Earth, to me relayed the very real truth that it is often Indigenous women who gracefully assert and sacrifice themselves to protect the earth. That, like Indigenous peoples, the earth is sovereign and cannot be owned or dismissed or killed for profit. It is often women who walk up the government steps to fight for the protection and rights of the silent earth and, in turn, Indigenous sovereignty, as the two often go hand in hand.
“My fight is your fight,” the film said to me.
And it’s alive. Francesca and her team took the extra time and effort to include quotes in the placards next to the artwork. An installation called The Affirmation Chair tells stories from women today about what it means to be tough. Walking through you hear sounds, songs, and voices. The Anchorage Museum is not simply showing our past in artifact and art form. The use of living words gives power to women’s voices and in turn gives courage to use voice. We can make a difference. We are relevant. We are here. We are alive. What we say matters.
Paintings showed women doing work in homes. Hanging laundry. Amaaqing, or what hipsters now call babywearing. A piece by Kivetoruk Moses shows a mermaid he saw one day while out hunting. You see women working to build and contribute to what Alaska is today. Women who built log homes. Dried seal gut for rain gear. Women who taught, piloted, provided healthcare, and, as displayed by an enlarged photo greeting visitors, built the pipeline.
One historical painting stopped me.
I had heard her name my entire life and I had always thought it beautiful. Mayuġiaq befriended renowned artist Fred Machetanz when he first visited Unalakleet in 1935. He resembled the son she had just lost and later she culturally adopted him. Machetanz, usually known for his cool, white and blue scenes of hunters and animals, paints Mayuġiaq in rich browns, reds, and emerald green, perhaps showing warmth of emotions for the strong and capable woman.
Something about her gaze brought to my mind her great-great granddaughter Elizabeth. I realized later that evening it’s their shared poise. Their knowingness. Their delightful ability to find humor while keeping grace.
And I felt the power strengthen my legs and spine. We, as women, carry a living history, whether we know it or not.
And today, whatever our skin tone, whether we like it or not, we collectively carry Alaska’s history. Bettye Davis is next to Elizabeth Peratrovich, who is next to Margaret Murie. There is no separation between the Indigenous experience and the settler experience. Each has contributed. Each has given. Each has lived, loved, lost, gained, and provided leadership and has built Alaska to what it is today.
The work continues. And it truly feels we can step into the light and do it together.