Sculptures by Artist Joel Isaak Celebrate the Lives of Indigenous Fishermen | Alaska Native Quarterly


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A family committed to the centuries-old tradition of salmon fishing and farming will soon welcome residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region as they enter the expanded Bethel Hospital. Artist Dena’ina Joel Isaak created the life-size statues for the installation “One’s Spirit”. Isaak worked closely with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) Cultural Committee to determine how best to represent the Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Athabascan in the numbers.

“One’s Spirit” features four figures, cast in bronze – father, mother, son and daughter at a fishing site. It shows the father pulling a net, the son proudly holding a caught fish, and the daughter carrying a salmon she has prepared for her mother waiting by the dryer.

Creating statues that represent many people is a challenge, and Isaak spent a lot of time polishing the faces. He wanted the people of the area to be “reflected in the statues,” he told a KYUK radio interviewer in Bethel. He worked hard to capture the nuances of the faces and had many conversations with Yup’ik about the peculiarity he had noticed in the boys in the area. They “have a mischievous face, a smile that Yup’ik boys have,” he told KYUK. Another challenge was to capture the wispy quality of the hair. From what I could discern from the photos of the finished bronzes, Isaak achieved whatever he wanted.

The YKHC Cultural Committee has approved the language of the plaque to be placed near the facility. The plaque indicates how One’s Spirit “illustrates the traditional values ​​of the Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Athabascan peoples of the region and the importance of love, generosity, family and the transmission of traditional knowledge. . . the crucial connection and dependence of communities on the lands and waters of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and the Bering Sea for their sustenance in all seasons.


The Bethel installation is the third created by Isaak, a member of the Kenaitze tribe of the Dena’ina Athabascan. Isaak grew up in the Kenai-Soldotna region and is deeply involved in his tribe and the culture of his people. His maternal grandmother is from the village of Ch’aghaÅ‚nikt at the northern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, which most Alaskans know as Point Possession. This is the name given by Captain James Cook when he took possession of it in June 1778 in the presence of the Dena’ina who lived there.

Isaak had received a BFA in sculpture from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) that spring. He had also created masks with salmon skin and now wanted to use them to make sculptures. He wanted to learn from other skilled skin artists, see ancient artifacts from the museum’s collection, and participate in the craft discussions.

He was very attentive, showed curiosity, and asked questions about various aspects of skin stitching. At the end of 2014, the museum invited him to lead a fish skin workshop. He was in Alaska for his winter break from studying for an MFA in sculpture from Alfred University in upstate New York, which he obtained in 2016.

Between undergraduate and graduate studies, Isaak worked with different materials: salmon skin, moose skin, porcupine feather, birch bark. His work has been exhibited in galleries in Homer, Seattle and Anchorage.


Isaak then began work on the Anchorage Museum’s “Dena’inaq ‘Huch’ulyeshi, The Dena’ina Way of Life” exhibit, which opened in September 2013 and included artifacts from museums in Europe. and North America. The late exhibit celebrated the original people of south-central Alaska who once dominated the region but whose presence declined when outsiders arrived.

His work for the exhibit was to take casts of faces of a Dena’ina family to use as models for the faces of the family shown during the representation of the fishing camp on the Newhalen River, the first exhibit that visitors have seen when entering the exhibition. It showed two women cleaning salmon on a table set in the shallows of the Newhalen River. Nearby, a young boy leaned over a k’usq’a (fish pen) to collect fish. Isaak also created the fish hanging on the fish shelves and in the smokehouse.


Isaak also contributed to another diorama exhibit depicting an ancient Dena’ina way of hunting beluga whales. Until about 1830, the coastal Dena’ina captured the beluga from a platform created by driving an upside-down tree with its roots intact, usually a spruce, into the mud at the mouth of a river, like the Kenai, where the beluga came while chasing Salmon. A hunter sat on the platform, waited for the beluga, and speared it as it passed. Other kayak hunters chased the harpooned beluga, killed it, and brought it back to land.

Isaak made the face of the hunter, his boots made of fish skin and the harpoon he held in his hand. Most of those who have seen this diorama have been surprised by the ingenuity of the Dena’ina and the skill of a new generation in showing it.

The following year, Isaak’s first facility was unveiled outside the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s new Dena’ina Wellness Center. The center was designed not only to provide dental and medical care, but also to honor Dena’ina tradition, culture and art.

“Łuq’a Nagh Ghilghuzht” (fishing camp) represents a traditional Dena’ina family in a fishing camp. Its three characters include a father who holds a fish in one hand and a long perch in the other, a daughter walking towards the mother who is waiting near the rack on which several salmon are drying. The meticulously crafted figurines show the family in traditional costume. Isaak captured in bronze the braided hair of mother and daughter and the fringes of their dresses. The fish trap reflects three similar structures attached to the exterior of the Dena’ina Wellness Center.


Isaak’s second installation, at the Small Craft Boat Launch in Anchorage, recognizes the presence of the region’s Dena’ina, the original inhabitants on whose lands the modern city now stands. It pays homage to Olga Nikolai Ezi, a Dena’ina elder known as “Grandmother Olga” or “Cheda”, (grandmother), a respected Dena’ina matriarch of Tyone Lake and Eklutna, deceased in the middle of the 20th century. Her statue brought her back to a familiar place: the mouth of Ship Creek in Anchorage, a traditional fishing spot.

Isaak Dena’ina is not only a distant relative of Olga. According to Isaak, the village of Eklutna wanted a statue of this revered elder to represent all of those who had used the site. “During the growth of the Port of Anchorage, the infrastructure was placed above the traditional fishing site, which was a culturally important area for the Dena’ina people,” Isaak said.

The statue of Grandmother Olga is the first in Anchorage to honor the Dena’ina people. A statue of Captain James Cook, who sailed to Cook Inlet and took possession of the area for the British crown without setting foot ashore, has long been in downtown Anchorage. However, there was nothing to honor or recognize the people who made their home in the area for centuries and still live here.

Isaak placed Grandmother Olga with his back to the city looming behind her. She constantly faces north and holds a salmon fillet in each hand, with more drying on the grill behind her. Again, Isaak paid attention to detail and portrayed Grandma Olga in a traditional Dena’ina caribou skin dress adorned with porcupine quill embroidery above the fringes at the hem and hem. yoke, fish skin boots and a scarf.

The installation also includes a hanging rack with salmon and a fish trap. Shadows of fish swimming in a cove carved in concrete towards the fish trap draw attention to the importance of fish to the Dena’ina.

Grandma Olga is now a heartwarming presence for the people of Eklutna and other Dena’ina in the area. Her descendants and others in Eklutna are happy to see her in Ship Creek. Isaak used photos of Grandma Olga and her relatives to create a composite face in which her descendants see themselves. The installation also reminds other viewers that the Dena’ina are still there. It is a worthy tribute to a People, and it claims part of its history, long subverted by those who came much later.

“The people of Eklutna tell me that they are moved by the statue. His descendants are happy to see their Cheda on the site again and they say to him, “Welcome home, Cheda,” Isaak said.

Isaak, with many talents, also strives to preserve its culture, language and traditions. He studies the language, learns to speak it. With the help of Helen Dick of Lime Village, one of the last remaining Dena’ina Elders to speak the language, Isaak learns to speak it. Dick, a valued mentor, continues to pass his knowledge on to him. Isaak learned to tan moose hide, peel bark from birch trees in the spring, and make traditional baskets from it. Dick is also involved with Isaak and others at Kenai Peninsula College in the creation of the Dena’ina Dictionary.

Isaak is a new student and is currently working on his PhD in Native Studies at UAF. He also embarked on building his house along Kenai Beach – a yurt with a large garage that doubles as his studio while working full time for the Department of Education and Early Development in as a tribal bond. Its work involves coordinating between the more than 200 Alaskan tribes and the department on education issues. He informs the tribes of new policies and communicates their concerns to the department.

Isaak’s work has received praise from many, including the YKHC Cultural Committee. A spokesperson for the committee said: “Working with Joel has been a pleasure. The cultural committee is thrilled with what it has created and believes the community will be too. It is a very special work of art.

His last job now complete, Isaak will take a break from art, at least from large multi-year projects. Installations like “One’s Spirit” typically take two years, from sketching to clay modeling, wax layering, bronze casting and placement. “I will now focus on completing my doctorate. It will take me another two years.

In the meantime, he will continue his work with the state and hone his Dena’ina language skills, which is important to him. “I wanted to learn Dena’ina since I was a child. It’s a way of thinking that makes sense to me. It is also a reflection of where we live, with words that describe things with observations.


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