Four people from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta were awarded arts grants from the Rasmuson Foundation this year. Two are from the same family: Stephen Blanchett and his mother, Marie Meade. Blanchett, one of the founders of the musical group Pamyua, will use his $18,000 fellowship grant to focus on dance. He plans to use many techniques, including masks and the internet, to experiment with the traditional forms of Yup’ik dance.
“Maybe some dancing in the dark kind of stuff; possibly some fun stuff with Yup’ik masks, and also creating some content to hopefully connect more to places that want to do dancing, but don’t have that capability of having artists come in. I was thinking of this as a way to do that remotely,” said Blanchett.
Blanchett's mother, Marie Meade, will also be delving into the Yup'ik musical past by using a $7,500 project grant to make an album of herself singing traditional songs.
“The work that I do documenting traditional knowledge and the traditional culture of the Yup’ik people; I learned songs from some of the Elders,” she said. Meade wants to pass these songs on to her grandchildren and future generations, adding, “I sang them to my kids when they were little.”
The region’s cultural riches are at the center of another fellowship awarded by Rasmuson, this one to Neva Mathias of Chevak, a village that has been in the vanguard of doll making for decades. Mathias uses traditional techniques to make large, detailed, almost 2-foot-tall dolls. The process begins early in the year at her fish camp.
“I’m one of the first people to pitch up my tent in my old camp site that my parents used to fish-camp every spring. That place is called Kuqlivik. That’s where we camp about a month and a half. The seal skins that I make, half of them are processed there, washed, stretched out, and dried there,” said Mathias.
Mathias' mother taught her how to make dolls and traditional grass baskets.
The fourth recipient of a project grant also grew up in the region. Katie Basile, who is the multimedia director at KYUK, received a grant to begin work on a major project on the effects of climate change in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. She notes that warming has occurred so rapidly that the rhythms of life have been altered, with no relief in sight. She also looks towards the Elders and the past for a way forward.
Basile is interested in “a specific teaching: human behavior dictates the weather, and this is something that’s been taught for centuries.” She added, “Sadly, we’re really reaching a tipping point, and along with making people aware of what’s happening, it’s also a time to grieve and realize what we probably will be losing. I want to capture it before it’s gone. It’s about the raw beauty that’s there.”
The themes of traditional culture and climate change surfaced in many of the Rasmuson Foundation’s arts awards this year. Richard Nelson, an anthropologist by training who has written books and produces a national radio program, was named this year’s Distinguished Artist. In his speech, Nelson said, “We’re the last witnesses of an undiminished world.” And it’s a “duty to portray that world for those who will not get to see it." Art, he said, is especially needed in the face of rapid global warming.