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New Native Arts coordinator will bring regular community workshops back to Bethel campus

Golga Oscar
Sage Smiley
Qukailnguq Golga Oscar, the new Native Arts coordinator for the UAF Kuskokwim Campus.

The fluorescent-lit aisles of a rural grocery store can be ripe for artistic inspiration, even if the produce is past its prime.

For Yup’ik artist and educator Qukailnguq Golga Oscar, much inspiration comes from seeing handmade cultural attire making its way through the contemporary world. The mukluks, headdresses, and fancy parkas of Yup’ik people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, but also the sewing, blankets, quillwork, and elaborate beading of Indigenous tribes downstates like the Lakota, Diné (Navajo), and Menominee peoples.

“I spotted this fancy parka that was being worn over at AC [grocery store], and I was just inspired by her wear,” Oscar said. “And I came up to her like, ‘Camiungua tauna atkuk?’ and she told me. Attire in general really inspires me when it's being worn within Western spaces or in the community.”

Oscar hails from Akulmiut and Qaluyaat, and has been hired as the new Native Arts coordinator at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kuskokwim Campus (KuC) in Bethel.

He brings a perspective shaped by his own art and teaching experience. Oscar said that when considering the new role he asks himself, “How can I Indigenize Western spaces, especially within Western systems such as higher education? Decolonizing in Western spaces by sharing stories, these quliraat, qanemcit that has to do with parkas or mukluks, or the aspects of Yup’ik creativity.”

In his new role, Oscar will primarily plan and lead workshops to help the campus and community learn and explore Native art media.

“My main goal for these workshops is to reclaim our Indigenous identity in the 21st century,” Oscar said. “There are days where I think, ‘How can I implement contemporary ideas in traditional forms of art?’ Because we live in a contemporary world, the majority of our Yup’ik attire is fastly changing because a lot of Western materials are being introduced into this environment, into this region.”

KuC Library Director Theresa Quiner helped write the grant for the new Native Arts coordinator position. “In order for our campus to be successful, we need to be deeply rooted in cultural classes,” Quiner said. “We need to be a part of this rebuilding of cultural revitalization.”

Quiner said that the same Title III federal grant that funds the Native Arts coordinator position will help reestablish higher-level Yugtun classes for educators and professionals at the campus.

“It's just gonna do a lot to bring life back to the campus,” Quiner said. “It's really important for the campus to have a thriving schedule of classes that are related to Yup’ik culture.”

A lifelong pursuit

Oscar’s fascination with the intricacies and wide variety of cultural attire has been with him since childhood. He pinpoints the moment: Kivgiq, the midwinter Messenger Feast, in his father’s hometown of Tununak.

“[The] majority of the community members were wearing their own headdresses, their own mukluks, they had their own pair of dance fans,” Oscar said. “Just by looking at that amount of Yup’ik attire that was being worn, I was very intrigued, very inspired, very amazed by the innovation that they've produced on their Yup’ik attire. When I looked back at my childhood, those are the attire that I haven't seen while growing up.”

Oscar is also motivated by the work of his maternal grandmother.

“I wanted to continue the legacy of my grandmother's creativity,” Oscar said. “Her skin sewing, her parkas were very unique and interesting, intriguing, although I didn't catch her sewing while growing up.”

So Oscar learned through other forms of observation: tutorials online, social media, and intensive study of items in the collections and back collections of museums, including the Anchorage Museum, the Burke Museum in Seattle, and the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Oscar is an accomplished skin sewer, weaver, carver, and beader, as well as a photographer and designer whose work is in the permanent collections of museums throughout the United States.

“Every time I create an art piece, before I create it I always question myself, ‘Has anyone done this before in my tribe?’ If no one has, I'm gonna go for it. I'm going to try to challenge myself to incorporate that technique from another tribe to my art piece. And then how can I best represent it in a way of inspiration? How can I influence my younger generation, along with the current generation, to explore other than our techniques strictly?”

Oscar wants to use his position to pass the vital importance of embracing Yup’ik spirituality, art, and language on to others.

“My main goal is to revitalize the majority of these works that were slowly forgotten. Not forgotten, but more like putting them into sleep,” Oscar said. “Yup’ik number system, Yup’ik color system, how can those two work hand in hand when it comes to creating Yup’ik attire? How can I educate my people about the tradition that was sleeping off for decades, ever since the impact of colonization?”

Oscar said that he hopes he can help community members in Bethel embrace their creativity and find comfort and strength in their Yup’ik identity.

“Our ancestors were very innovative using natural resources,” Oscar said. “Aka ciuliamta piliyullruut aka tamani munacassaagluteng, meaning trying to compete with one another to see who can be more creative.”

Oscar said that he sees the position as an opportunity to both change and revitalize culture for future generations, one of the driving forces in his life as both an artist and educator. Of all his many accomplishments, Oscar said that his proudest is teaching his former students in Kasigluk to crimp the soles of their own mukluks and seeing them become more comfortable in their Yup’ik identity.

As one of many future workshops, Oscar will bring the reemerging art of mukluk sole crimping and construction to any Bethel community members who want to learn.

Oscar’s workshops begin with a three-day Yup’ik headdress-making workshop that starts Friday, Jan. 12. Find more information here.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.