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Alaska Native cultural patterns
Photo Credit: Lexi Qass’uq Trainer (Cup’ik/Yup’ik)
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Designed to Tell A Story: Cultural Patterns on Travel Alaska

Designed to Tell A Story: Cultural Patterns on Travel Alaska

About the Author: Samantha Phillips is Tlingit - Kaagwaantaan, Eagle/Brown Bear of Klukwan and grew up in Yakutat. As a young woman she learned of her Tlingit grandmother’s suffering of severe discrimination and mistreatment while attending a residential boarding school. Publicly speaking out about what her grandmother endured served as a powerful lesson to Samantha that Indigenous voices need to be heard. By focusing on making a difference, she has passionately poured her storytelling abilities into various writing pursuits. When she is not writing in her current home in Madison, Alabama, Samantha can be found making memories with her life’s work—her six children.

The vibrancy of our Alaska Native art is easy for visitors to discover. Visitors to our vast and breathtaking lands find artistic expression splashed across buildings, ships, jets, and even vehicles. Ancestral totem poles and large installation art reveal our complex history and the resilience demonstrated by our people. 

As the Indigenous people of Alaska, we invite you, the visitor, to drink in the colors and textures of the beautiful tapestry woven together by the art of our distinctive cultural groups. Dive a little deeper to understand the meaning behind the intricate designs and patterns depicted in various forms throughout our lands to unveil the stories of the people who have called Alaska home since time immemorial. 

Threaded through the Travel Alaska website are examples of designs likely to be found throughout Alaska. These serve as a small window into a world of stunning visuals, each telling a different story. Specific to region, tribe, clan, family and individual, these general samples give a glimpse into the artistic world of Alaska’s Indigenous people and where you may spot them. 

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Sugpiaq Design

In Southwestern Alaskan communities, designs like this are painted on Sugpiaq bentwood hats. Traditionally worn during seafaring hunts, hunting visors were essential in protecting hunters from the elements as well as camouflaging them from their prey. Young men starting their hunting career wear shorter visors and experienced hunters don longer visors. Other embellishments, such as beads and whiskers, are added to the hats to represent the status and accomplishments of the hunters. In addition, the hats were painted to resemble animal faces when the hunter looked down, further camouflaging themselves into the natural environment and not alerting prey.    

Sugpiaq man holding bentwood had
Sugpiaq man holding bentwood hat. Photo credit: Dave Fedorski for Midnight Run, LLC

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Tlingit, Haida, And Tsimshian Design

In Southeast Alaska, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people follow an artistic discipline called formline design. Artists who are trained in traditional formline use four distinct shapes - ovoids, U shapes, S shapes, and trigons. Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian each have their own style of formline. The art above depicts an eagle. Hint: the curved beak gives it away. Formline art can be found on totem poles, regalia, bentwood boxes, and other traditional objects.

Tlingit artist at Crazy Wolf Studio
Tlingit formline artist at Crazy Wolf Studio

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Yup'ik & Cup'ik Design

Across Alaska, the iconic ulu knife symbolizes the subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Native cultures. Referred to as women's knives, the curved blades serve as multifunctional tools to skin animals, cut fish, meat, and other foods, as well as chop blocks of ice, cut hair, and use in sewing. They are treasured family heirlooms connecting women to their mothers and grandmothers. The handles were originally made of bone, wood, or ivory. In this pattern above, the handles are shaped like salmon and seal, both integral food sources for Alaska Natives. Ulu knives continue to be a staple in Alaska Native kitchens. Modern day ulu knives can be found in gift shops across Alaska, as well as online. 

Ulu knife
Ulu knife. Photo credit: Lexi Qass’uq Trainer (Cup’ik/Yup’ik)

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Athabascan Design

Throughout Interior and Southcentral Alaska, dentalium shells, also known as tusk shells, adorn regalia and are fashioned into jewelry. The art above is an example of an Athabascan necklace pattern alternating the tubular dentalium shells and glass seed beads. Athabascan artisans are known for their exquisite beadwork. Due to their rarity and difficulty in acquiring, prized dentalium shells were historically used as a form of currency for Athabascan cultures. Owning them signified wealth and status, therefore they were only worn by notable individuals like tribal leaders. 

Athabascan woman in regalia
Athabascan woman wearing a dentalium necklace. Photo credit: Lexi Qass’uq Trainer (Cup’ik/Yup’ik)

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Iñupiaq Design

In North and Northwest Alaska, geometric patterns trim parkas (coats), kuspuk (outer coats), and mukluks (boots). This pattern is an example of such trim, called qupak. In the 19th century, Iñupiaq created qupak with white hide bleached by the sun and pierced with red yarn to create a simple geometric pattern to trim parkas. Qupak designs have evolved into more elaborate designs, identifying the artisan and region in which they were made.  

Inupiag parka
Qupak pattern on an Iñupiaq parka. Photo credit: Lexi Qass’uq Trainer (Cup’ik/Yup’ik) 

Unveiling the stories behind the patterns and designs of Alaska's Indigenous art is like embarking on a fascinating journey. Each intricate detail, each vibrant color, whispers tales of the artist's identity, their community, and the rich cultural tapestry they represent. This is just a taste of the wealth of stories waiting to be discovered. We invite you to delve deeper, explore the diverse artistic expressions of Alaska, and gain a deeper appreciation for our people who breathe life into these enduring traditions.

Alaska's Indigenous art is more than just visually stunning; it's a captivating language, a vibrant tapestry woven with stories, identities, and cultural heritage. Each pattern, each design, offers a glimpse into the life of the artist, their community, and the values they hold dear. This is just a starting point – a spark to ignite your curiosity. We encourage you to explore further, delve into the deeper meanings, and gain a profound appreciation for the artistic legacy of Alaska's Indigenous peoples.

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Snowy mountain peaks in Alaska

New! Alaska Native Culture Guide

Immerse yourself in Alaska Native heritage and learn how to experience the living culture of the state's Indigenous peoples.