The Making of “Tundra Woman” (Yup’ik Eskimo Elder Sophie Sakar Berry Picking on the Tundra)

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“Tundra Woman”  The Making Of Lindsay’s Newest 4.5 x 7 ft Ink and Colored Pencil Original Drawing

Meet Sophie Sakar, a 77-year-old woman of Yup’ik Eskimo decent living in Chuathbaluk, an Eskimo village of 100 people on the Kuskokwim River in Alaska.  I met Sophie while traveling with US Fish and Wildlife Service as an artist in residence in 2017.  After chatting for hours, I hopped on the back of her four-wheeler, and she took me blueberry picking on the tundra.  While raking the thick bushes for berries, I’d look up and she’d have vanished. Sophie is the tundra.  She is the land that made her.  I snapped a portrait of Sophie, garden stake in the earth and berry bucket in hand, smiling, with the giant Alaskan tundra sprawling out behind her.  This image gave me hope – it will be people like Sophie, carrying the knowledge of how to live in reciprocity with the land – who will guide us home.

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Sophie arrived in Chuathbaluk in 1967 at a time when most of the village had been wiped out by a flood and never rebuilt.  She volunteered her time translating letters from Yup’ik to English to apply for grants to rebuild the village.  The elders at the time knew nothing of reading and writing and spoke no English. She served as treasurer for the rebuilding village that had $14.50 to its name!  She and others fought for all the village has today and were able to fund an airstrip, health clinic, teen center, larger school, and council building. Sophie then served as health aid for 42 years.  Health aids are approached for all medical needs in a rural Alaskan village.  Sophie saved many lives throughout this time.  Sophie was raised traditionally during a time when there was still no electricity and when canoe and dog sled were the modes of transportation.  Her parents and the elders taught her about hunting, fishing, harvesting, processing food, and keeping home.  She has influenced many in her family with these same teachings, one of those being her granddaughter Patty, who at age 31 decided to turn her life around and practice traditional subsistence.  She came humbly to Sophie to learn, and is building a healthy life for herself and her children.

This artwork was created to honor Sophie, her contributions to her village and people, and her steadfast ways of living with the land.  It is a prayer of support for all the people globally holding on to traditional ways of living in union and balance with the lands they call home.

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“My Grandma Sophie is the backbone of our family.  She’s full of love and makes sure everyone she meets and greets will leave with a smile on their face and a spot for her in their heart.”  – Rachel Konteh, granddaughter.

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“Berry picking is one of her all-time favorite activities.  It’s like no matter how old she is, she turns into a child when out on the tundra. This evening at the maqiviq, she was counting her broken bones and telling us her survival stories.  Her stories are incredible.  We are so blessed to have her with us.” – Marie Sakar, daughter.

“My Grandmother Sophie is my role model.  She taught me how to use my voice and speak up for what I believe in. She is the reason I am the woman I am today.”   – Patty Yaska, granddaughter.

“With all the hardships that my Mother has endured during her lifetime, dealing with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act by being a Kuskokwim Corporation board member for many years, and a health aide for 42 years, while raising 8 children, as well as her grandchildren, and great grandchildren, this – the tundra – is her happy place. Behind every action that she did for the people in her life, there was a reason. She became involved in politics because she saw her father sign the letter, “X,” on a piece of paper without any explanation of what he was signing for. She became a health aide because her infant daughter died in her arms as she stood at the side of the river trying to flag people who were either flying in airplanes or passing by in boats to help her with her ailing child. She was a health aide for 40 years, and she retired the year I turned 42. My Mother loves berry picking. This is the one place that regardless of her age or her health problems that she transforms back into her childlike youth. Living the subsistence way of life is what she grew up with, and has instilled in us. In the summertime, when we’re done cutting fish, it’s off to the tundra to pick berries. In English, “Chuathbaluk” means Big Blueberries. In 1967, my Mother, and the late Florence J. Nelson were one of the first leaders who helped form the Chuathbaluk Traditional Council, and the City of Chuathbaluk. I love how you captured her with the marker stick, because knowing her, that is exactly what she would use for a walking stick. I became a teacher because I wanted to do something for my people, just like my Mother.  If a picture can tell a thousand words, just imagine what her story would say if we were to write a book about her.  Quyana Cakneq, Thank You Very Much for choosing my Mother to capture this beautiful moment in time.” – Marie Sakar, daughter.

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You can see the artwork in person at Fullerton College Art Gallery in Fullerton, California from January 31st – February 20th, 2019.

Photos by: Jason Speth and Lindsay Carron