Art honoring Alaska Native culture installed in Anchorage

    Anchorage, Alaska (AP) - A statue honoring Alaska Native culture has been put up in the state's largest city.


    The installation included the bronze statue of a Dena'ina woman holding dried fish, the Anchorage Daily News reported. She wears traditional dress hemmed with quills and stands before a rack hung with fish skins. A fish silhouetted in concrete swims into a partially submerged fish trap.

    The artwork at the Anchorage small boat launch was more than a decade in the making and marks a traditional Dena'ina fish camp at the mouth of Ship Creek that commemorates the Native village of Eklutna and its cultural history.

    "It's a pretty significant thing to have our people accurately represented, in an accurate likeness of what we're doing," said Joel Isaak, a Soldotna-based artist who created the sculpture who is himself Dena'ina.

    Fish traps were used by the Athabascan-speaking tribe to catch hooligan and small stickleback in early spring before salmon returned to the creeks. The fish camp was used until World War II, when the Army took over the site.

    Big infrastructure projects planned in the 2000s threatened to disrupt the site. An art installation emerged as a way to use culture to mitigate the effects of the Knik Arm Crossing project, said Aaron Leggett, the president of Native Village of Eklutna and the curator of Alaska history at the Anchorage Museum. An expansion of the Port of Anchorage also was planned.

    Port expansion ended up mired in lawsuits. But the main contractor on the project, the United States Maritime Administration, kept a promise to pay for art honoring Eklutna, said Jocelyn Fenton, program manager with the Denali Commission. The total budget ended up at about $266,000, Denali Commission records show.

    The sculpture of the woman and the fish camp stand counter the statue of Captain James Cook, the namesake of Cook Inlet, whose statute overlooks the Alaska Railroad headquarters, Leggett said. Tribe members wondered why the community built a statue for an explorer who sailed up the inlet but never walked on the mainland, he said.

    The bronze Dena'ina woman in the sculpture is modeled after Olga Nikolai Ezi, an elder known as "Grandma Olga." Ezi died in the mid-20th century. She was Ahtna and married a Dena'ina chief, Simeon Esia. They had five children and established much of the lineage of the tribe, according to interpretive panels at the installation.

    Isaak is a distant relative of Ezi's. The village gave him photographs of Ezi's descendants so he could create a semblance of her, he said. The statue was not meant to be an exact replica of Ezi.

    "Her family should see themselves in her, was my goal," Isaak said.

    From start to finish, the sculpting process took about two years, Isaak said.

    He wanted to acknowledge that the Dena'ina people have been fishing in this spot for hundreds of years. The sculpture also seeks to honor the matrilineal structure of Dena'ina culture, Isaak said, and Ezi's efforts to pass her language and culture down to her family and past generations after it was forcibly removed during colonization.

    The installation also is meant to contrast with the harsh urban environment that surrounds it.

    "It's a positive approach to letting people know we're still here," Isaak said.


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