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At an Alaska maker's space, Indigenous artists connect with millennia of tradition

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The closest thing to Santa's workshop - in Alaska, anyway - is a building just blocks from the Arctic coast. It is the nation's northernmost maker's space, a place where Indigenous artists can create things like walrus ivory earrings, figurines made from whale baleen and traditional knives with caribou antler handles. As Emily Schwing reports, what's made here is steeped in thousands of years of tradition.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: It's polar night this time of year in the Arctic, but there's a golden glow from the windows of the traditional room at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in the heart of Utqiaġvik.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW BUZZING)

SCHWING: Inside, band saws buzz, and sanders whir. Two years ago, Percy Aiken bought a piece of walrus ivory. He didn't know what to do with it, so he came here to take a class. Ever since, he's been fashioning perfectly smooth, shiny beads for bracelets and earrings. Aiken's jewelry is a main source of income for him.

PERCY AIKEN: It gets me by for now. Once I have steady ivory coming in, I'll be making a lot of what I do. I love carving now.

COLLEEN LEMEN: Gosh, there's all kinds of stuff that come out of that traditional room.

SCHWING: Colleen Lemen was the director of the Iñupiat Heritage Center for nearly half a decade. The traditional room is available to all of Utqiaġvik's 4,000-some residents. More than a hundred people use this space each year to make, create and take classes.

LEMEN: One of the coolest things that I thought that came out of there were whale jaws. I've seen an artisan who was commissioned to carve things on those whale jawbones.

SCHWING: Whales are central to life in Utqiaġvik. It's a main staple in the Iñupiaq subsistence diet so many people this far north rely on. But whale jawbones are both enormous and extremely heavy, so this is one of the only spaces big enough for an artist to work on a commission like that. Finding workspace and industrial tools is a challenge for Indigenous artists who live in hundreds of rural communities. There aren't many large buildings, and shipping costs are high. James Patkotak is hunched over a workbench. He fiddles with something small, dark brown and pointy.

JAMES PATKOTAK: Well, I'm making - right now this is a grizzly bear claw, and I'm attaching walrus tusk ivory on top of it so I can make a figurine head.

SCHWING: His goal is to fashion a pendant for a bolo tie. Patkotak's father was a jewelry maker.

PATKOTAK: He passed away about 10 years ago, and that's when I finally sat down and decided to learn how to do this.

SCHWING: Iñupiaq artists like Patkotak have learned how to use walrus ivory and whale baleen from their elders. They're building on traditional designs that are thousands of years old. The local municipal government funds this space. And without it, Patkotak says he wouldn't be able to make anything.

PATKOTAK: I mean, yeah, this whole place is so - it's so useful for everybody. It's called the traditional room for a purpose.

SCHWING: He says he's found his purpose here, where he carries on the work his father taught him how to do. For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Utqiaġvik.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMON SONG, "THEY SAY (FEAT. KANYE WEST AND JOHN LEGEND)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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