Ursula Paniyak, renowned doll maker from Chevak, passed away last month after a battle with lung cancer. She leaves behind a brother, sisters, grandchildren, and hundreds of intricate, handmade dolls.
There are numerous types of dolls across various Alaska Native cultures. Many are traditionally made as teaching tools, and others are built just for children’s entertainment. Ursula Paniyak and her family are a part of completely new practice of their own design - a institution that conveys not only traditional knowledge, but paints a picture of a moment in time.
"The very first doll I bought was the bubble gum doll. She was just chewing her gum, and she just had to blow a big bubble. And so there’s a big giant bead coming out of her mouth, like a hot pink bead. So it represents her bubble gum.” said Karen McIntyre, who grew up in Bethel and bought two Paniyak dolls in the 1980's. She says she connects with this doll because it reminds her of her childhood.
“Back in those days, when I was a young kid and I lived in the village, we chewed Bazooka Joe because everyone could afford to at least buy a piece of bubble gum," said McIntyre.
McIntyre lives in Sitka now, but was in Bethel when Ursula was living there. Ursula was in her late thirties and just getting her start selling dolls.
KYUK - “So you knew Ursula before her dolls were collectors' items. What was she like then?”
“She was such a jolly person. You know, a lot of people that meet me here in Sitka they ask, are all you people from the YK Delta this jolly? And I am like, yes we are. And so she’s just really super jolly and happy. I’ve never seen her not happy or jolly and it followed through with her dolls for sure," said McIntyre.
McIntyre remembers other dolls Ursula made that showcased the artist's sense of humor.
“The one with the grass… when a person was done using the bathroom they were using grass to wipe up. To me that was just like, 'Wow, someone had enough guts to make a doll like that?' But that is something that we all do every single day," said McIntyre.
McIntyre remembers that all the dolls came with a card that told a story. The dolls also came with another card, the price tag, which could be thousands for a single Paniyak doll.
Another thing that made the dolls stand out was the treatment of their faces. Paniyak dolls often have sealskin faces that wrinkle when they dry and evolve into a lifelike, expressive, face.
Ursula, along with her older sister Anita, carried on a tradition started in Chevak by their mother, Rosalie Paniyak. Rosalie taught all her daughters the craft, and in a way helped create it.
“My older sister was the first one to learn from my mother," said Ursula’s sister, Anita Paniyak.
KYUK - “How did your mother learn how to make dolls?”
“You know how some people play with Barbie dolls and all that? Well we didn’t have those back then. They use to make them out of cloth: little people," said Anita.
Anita says her mother learned how to make traditional Cup'ik dolls and baskets, but found it hard to make a living selling them because there was too much competition.
Thus began an entirely new style of doll for the region, which many people have since tried to imitate.
Anita doesn’t make the dolls anymore. She lives in Anchorage and the materials are hard for her to get, but they are still being made. The next generation to do so is Ursula’s granddaughter Jaderiene Paniyak, who is 18 and starting at UAA in the fall. She, like Ursula, depicts her own life through her dolls.
“When I get, you know, more creative, they’re like hanging out with their best friends or talking on the phone, things like that," said Jaderiene.
Because Paniyak dolls are so effective at capturing the values of the people who made them in a moment in time, you can look at the progression of the dolls to learn the story of a changing people and region. For Jaderiene it’s something more personal, more familial.
“When we make dolls together, it’s always fun and it’s always something new," said Jaderiene.
KYUK - “But when you say learning something new, you’re not just talking about learning something new about dolls. You’re talking about learning something new about your family?”
“The way that they think when they make the dolls, it’s something new every year. And you wouldn’t have guessed that they would actually think about things that way, but they express it in their dolls," said Jaderiene.
Jaderiene says that when Ursula was older, she couldn’t make it out to fish camp or ride in boats the way she had when she was young. The last doll she made conveyed that, in a way.
“I recently got this gift for my graduation that was the last doll she made and it wasn’t actually doing anything. Does that make sense? It was just a doll," said Jaderiene.
KYUK - “What did you think about that?”
“I thought it was great because she was in the process of making the doll before she got sick. That was the last doll she was in the process of making," said Jaderiene.
KYUK - “But she didn’t finish it?"
“No," said Jaderiene.
KYUK - “Are you going to finish it?”
“I think I’ll just leave it like that. We have this thing that once someone is making something and they pass away, you should leave it that way and not try to fix it or anything," said Jaderiene.
Jaderiene says she plans to continue the tradition and pass it on to her own children as it came down to her.