By Kelley Lane for Seward City News –
The Qutekcak Native Tribe is offering winter native crafting classes at their office building located on 3rd Avenue. This is the 5th winter of the program, which is funded by a grant from the CIRI Corporation. The classes began in October, then took a break for the winter holidays for the months of November and December and recently resumed in January. They will run each Wednesday from 12pm-2pm and 2pm-4pm for the next couple of months, or until the grant exhausts its funds. The CIRI grant covers the costs of art instruction and supplies, which allows the classes to be offered on a donation-basis. This past Wednesday the two classes offered were cuspik sewing and loom beading, both taught by local native artists.
The native crafting program is administered by Sarah Benjamin, who grew up in Homer, Alaska and has been living in Seward for more than a decade. She came to Seward to work as a dental hygienist for the North Star Dental Clinic, and moved into her current position about a year ago. She now has two sons, Wade and Michael, with whom she has been enjoying this winter’s snow by sledding and snow machining. Benjamin oversees a variety of Qutekcak Tribal programs, such as in-home care services for elders as well as the local contingent of Native Youth Olympics, led by Coach James Wardlow.
Benjamin explained that the Qutekcak Tribe is different from many others around Alaska and the other states, in large part due to the influence of the Jesse Lee Home, the home for displaced Alaska native youth that was based in Seward for decades. The Jesse Lee Home brought native people from all around Alaska to the town of Seward. As such, the ethnic and cultural heritage of Qutekcak Tribal members are diverse. The Qutekcak Tribe is currently awaiting Federal Recognition as tribe, and as part of the process, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has halted the tribe’s open enrollment period. In the meantime, they offer services to their own members as well as to the rest of the Alaska native population. The native crafting is one such program, that’s also open to the public, and taught by local Sewardites.
Michael Hibbets, who teaches ivory carving and loom beading, has lived in Seward most of his life. “I came here in ‘64, right after the earthquake.” He remembers the destruction of the town that he saw as a young boy. Hibbets is the son of a Coast Guard worker, who was sent to Seward to replace the buoys, which had been destroyed by the tidal wave that accompanied the 1964 earthquake. Michael attended high school here in Seward and continued his education at the Skills Center, a predecessor to AVTEC, in their building and maintenance program. He decided to study surveying, as a way to work outside, and found a job with the railroad.
Michael was adopted into his family and didn’t grow up knowing of his Athabascan heritage. In adulthood, he learned that his birth mother had attended Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, which alerted him to her native heritage. Mount Edgecumbe, located in Sitka was historically a school for native heritage villagers from villages that lacked high schools. Hibbets dug into learning his ancestry and found ties to the village of Ruby, located on the Yukon River, in the middle of interior Alaska. Around the same time, he began learning native crafting, such as ivory carving and tanning hides, from local people, including Leo Kannuk.
This past Wednesday, Hibbets was teaching loom beading, which he learned from a fellow Athabascan and commercial fisherman named Alex. His wife, Kristy Dean-Hibbets was working on a narrow beaded bracelet, intended for their upcoming grandchild. Loom beading is a detailed art form, that utilizes a wooden loom, glass beads and thread to create intricate beaded patterns that can be worn as jewelry, or affixed to fabrics or furs. Hibbets has extensive practice at loom beading, as he has been practicing for years and sells his artwork in the gift shop at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.
Native crafting at the Qutekcak Tribal Office will continue each Wednesday afternoon for the coming two months. The public is welcome. For more information, Division Manager Sarah Benjamin can be reached at 907.224.3118, extension 2.