The Seldovia Museum is playing host to 24 handmade dolls from remote Alaska Native communities across the state. The dolls are Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Inupiaq.
Homer resident Gert Seekins has been collecting the dolls over the years and decided they needed to be seen by a wider audience. That’s when the Seldovia Village Tribe stepped in to acquire them.
“Basically it was just an opportunity to let people have a window into a part of Alaska that’s hard to see and hard to get to,” Seldovia Museum Curator Jan Yaeger said.
She said some of the dolls are more than 50 years old. Yaeger said while she refers to them as “dolls,” they really are more like art. They’re made from a variety of traditional materials like seal guts and fur, leather, and even feathers.
“There are some that have denim and gingham and fabrics that are certainly a part of contemporary Alaska Native clothing. But they are made from a wide gamut. Probably fish skin is the most unusual material,” she said.
Yaeger said the skin is a golden color and all the individual scales are distinct. That doll in particular is with a group of dolls made by artists from Chevak. It’s a small village north of Bethel. Yaeger said the dolls in that collection, which are referred to as “ugly dolls” are among her favorite. She said Rosalie Paniyak pioneered that style.
“Her work is collecting pretty widely. President George H.W. Bush has purchased one of her dolls in the past and some are in the Smithsonian. They just have a… sense of humor to them. They’re not an idealized version of people. They’re very much based on people doing their everyday activities,” she said.
She said you can learn a lot about the remote communities based on the materials used.
“For instance, the grass dolls come from the coastal areas… some areas are more focused on seal skin. And so just by looking at the dolls, you can really see what the resources are,” she said.
Yaeger said a teacher at Susan B. English recently contacted her about tying the doll collection into a lesson about Alaska Native culture around the state. She said that type of collaboration is something the museum wants to continue.
“We’ve gotten some very small display cases that are portable. We’re hoping to be able to work with the school, the library, the community center where if they have a program or a focus that they’re working on and we have an artifact, or some material that relates to that, then we can do a miniature display in that setting,” she said.
The Seldovia Museum is open seasonally and the doll exhibit, which is titled “When I Remember, I Make a Doll” will be on display through the first week in September.