Arctic and Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuges
The summer of 2017 I was invited back up to work with US Fish and Wildlife Service as an artist in residence in their National Wildlife Refuge system in Alaska. In 2016, the residency culminated with a beautiful artwork that described the southern portion of the 19 million acre Arctic Refuge and the Gwich’in people. We were presented a challenge: the Refuge is millions of acres more than I could ever see in one visit and there are two distinct groups of Native people who call it home, the Gwich’in in the South and the Inupiaq Eskimos in the North. So we did another project!
The first part of the month of August was spent along the Hula Hula River in the Brooks Range Massif in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and in Kaktovik, a small village of Inupiaq Eskimos on the Arctic Coast. I then flew across the state of Alaska (which is a third of the size of our country!) and spent the latter half of the month along the Kuskokwim River in Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge visiting village after village of Yup’ik Eskimos. YK Delta NWR boasts the largest population of Native people, and the Yup’ik continue to this day to retain a great portion of their traditional ways of life on the river: fishing for salmon, hunting moose and caribou, and harvesting berries from the tundra.
The resulting work below are sketches created in the field, portraits drawn of the people who shared stories with me, and the final two pieces for US Fish and Wildlife Service, owned and used by them for education, environmental efforts, and Native relations. The projects continue to evolve and touch me deeply, and I hope the artwork will continue to inspire for years to come.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Ida Angasan, 72 years old, Kaktovik
Isaac Akootchook, 96 years old, Kaktovik
Final Commission for US Fish and Wildlife Service, Fairbanks
“The Arctic Miracle of Life: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Kaktovik”
At the northernmost point of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, rivers split at the Continental Divide and wind through the Brooks Range Massif. Out onto the flat Coastal Plain they flow, depositing nutrients into a teeming Arctic Ocean. Here, mother polar bears den in the winter and caribou birth calves in the spring. Wolves pursue caribou and Dall’s sheep over tundra trails, and bowhead whales carrying ancient threads of the sea nourish a people who call this place home – the Inupiaq Eskimos of Alaska.
Elders like Betty Brower and Isaac Akootchook who thrive here know it to be a land of self-reliance, but also radical interdependence.
By recognizing the cycles that push and pull at the North of the planet, we can find roles in supporting this persistent
Arctic Miracle of Life.
Kuskokwim River, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge
Sophie Sakar, 75 years old, Chuathbaluk
Patricia Yaska, Chuathbaluk
Samuel Jackson Sr., 93 years old, Traditional Chief Kwethluk
Polly Andrews, 32 years old, Anchorage
Final Commission for US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bethel
“Inextricably Intertwined: Kuskokwim River and Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge”
Winding down the Kuskokwim River towards the delta, the earth flattens, trees disappear, and the expanse of tundra becomes unfathomable. Upriver, 75-year-old Sophie Sakar collects the abundant wild blueberries of the late summer tundra, her backdrop, the Russian Mountains, of the last undulations in the terrain. Those same hands that boil moose in stew, take apart whitefish for akutaq, and fillet salmon for drying, rebuilt her village from the ground up.
Downriver, Samuel Jackson Sr., speaking only his native tongue, tells harvest stories as his eyes trail flocks of geese overhead. At 93 years old and the traditional chief, his family legacy spans up and down the river. The magic of the wild Kuskokwim is evident as rounding every bend of the river sends waterfowl and osprey into flight, and through its history with its people, the Yup’ik Eskimos of Alaska, who to this day live inextricably intertwined with the river that sustains them.