Remembering Joe Senungetuk, a practitioner in the art of resistance

a cartoon sketch of a man
Portrait of a Young Artist: Joe Senungetuk surrounds a sketch of himself with headlines from Howard Rock’s Tundra Times newspaper. (Martha Senungetuk)

Joe Senungetuk said he really didn’t care if his art sold, but if it stirred a reaction, it was worth it. He hoped his pieces would become time capsules for future generations of Alaska Natives — to help them understand their history and appreciate their culture.

But the Inupiaq artist, who died on May 31, leaves behind many contemporary art fans who loved his carvings, sculptures and paintings.

Senungetuk lived to be 83, through years of sweeping change for Alaska Natives. He born in a time when people of the Northwest Arctic lived mostly on what the land and water provided. As a child in Wales, he chafed at teachers who punished him for speaking his language and annoyed them by drawing in the margins of his school papers, instead of sticking to the lines.

He grew up to study art at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the San Francisco Art Institute.

As a young man, he resisted pressure to produce commercial art for tourists, which at the time was the only market available for Native artists. Instead, he used his art to tell stories about his culture and its struggles to survive in a modern world.

His wife, Martha, said his pieces weren’t always pretty.

“There are hoards of people that just want to make pretty pieces,” Martha Senungetuk said. “I know that he was one of a kind, that could not just create something that people admired, but something that will last for hundreds of years.”

 Joe Senungetuk's wife, Martha, hopes  he will be remembered for his genius to say a lot with very little.
Joe Senungetuk’s wife, Martha, hopes he will be remembered for his genius to say a lot with very little. (Rhonda McBride)

Joe Senungetuk had a panoramic view of time, a common thread in his work. One of his pieces still hangs in his living room window — two masks combined to tell a story about colonialism. One face is white and small, suspended over another that is brown and large, which represents Alaska Native people. It’s titled “The White Man Came… and He Hung around… and He Hung Around.”

Senungetuk said the size of each mask reflects the amount of time each group of people has spent in Alaska and the disproportionate power wielded by newcomers to the state.

In an interview with Alaska Public Media’s Lori Townsend Senungetuk put it this way.

“The United States, as a country, started somewhere around 200 some years ago,” Senungetuk said. “And to me that ends up being like the first 16 inches of a football field.”

Senungetuk was an artist immersed in history, a serious student of Indigenous art, the world over. He said those works from early human artists were like a Bible to him. He admired their sophistication, especially that of his Inupiat forefathers, who could, with a few concentric circles, suggest the ripples created when seals poke their noses out of the water.

It was this kind of art, Senungetuk said, that was used to tell stories.

“The original purpose of them were to give birth to an idea, to a dance, to a ceremony that would celebrate new life,” Senungetuk said.

In his later years, Joe Senungetuk became an Elder in Residence at Alaska Pacific University, along with his wife Martha. (Joaqlin Estus)

Senungetuk believed modern Native artists could also use art to give birth to ideas. As an artist he used them to make social commentary, like the time he tore a bar stool apart to tell the story of his own battle — and that of fellow Alaska Natives — with alcoholism.

He pulled out the upholstery from the stool to fashion a frame for a wooden mask, then used springs from the seat to cover the mask, to make it look like a face behind bars. He called his work: “Imprisoned by State and Self.”

His friend and fellow artist, Jeff Clark, said Senungetuk made a conscious effort to produce art to stand the test of time.

“It’s about trying to figure out how this nonsensical world can make sense to you,” Clark said. “Maybe 200 years later, someone will go, ‘Wow! They really did understand what was going on.’”

Joe Senungetuk created Sedna Rising for the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center in Bethel. According to Inupiaq legend, Sedna was a sea goddess, whose father threw her off a kayak in anger. He chopped off her fingers, hands and arms to keep her from climbing back into the kayak. They turned into seals, walruses and whales. (Francisco Martinezcuello/KYUK)

Senungetuk was quoted in a magazine as saying, “My art and creating is spiritual to me. And it’s also a bit of resistance.”

“I can just see him smiling ever gently, when he says that with a little bit of resistance,” said Bob Onders, a former president at Alaska Pacific University, who helped to recruit Senungetuk and his wife as Elders in Residence at the university.

Onders said Senungetuk’s art told some harsh truths, but he was always gentle with people.

“I think he was just a peaceful presence, a comforting smile,” he said.

Onders remembers how students seemed to enjoy basking in Senungetuk’s wisdom. He was often seen carving and talking with them about Native culture.

Onders said most people don’t realize that Senungetuk was also a writer. Onders said his book, “Give or Take a Century: An Eskimo Chronicle” is much like his art in how it offers “enduring wisdom.”

Senungutuk finished the book in 1971. It tells the story of his childhood in Wales and the cultural upheaval his family experienced when they moved to the larger community of Nome.

Onders said the book looks ahead to the impact modernization would have on life in Alaska and Native peoples.

“When you think about the time when he wrote that, and what he had been doing prior to that, what he put on paper was incredible,” Onders said. “Even the title speaks to how he thought far beyond his current timeframe.”

 "Crab Fishing Through Ice," a wooden block print by Joe Senungetuk. May 26, 1966. Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian collection.
“Crab Fishing Through Ice,” a wooden block print by Joe p. May 26, 1966. (Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian collection)

Senungetuk hoped his book, which includes some of his art, would be a cultural compass for future generations.

“There is a fundamental lesson in knowing about your past, your culture’s past,” Senungetuk said.

Senungetuk said his culture was the inspiration for almost all of his work. And although life was far from smooth, he once said cutting into soft wood with a sharp blade felt like a knife sliding through butter – a feeling he enjoyed all his life.

 Joe Senungetuk's work in the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian Collection.  Brooch (left) representing a bird, nest and egg - 1966.  "Mother and Child" wooden sculpture-1967.
Joe Senungetuk’s work in the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian Collection. Brooch (left) representing a bird, nest and egg – 1966. “Mother and Child” wooden sculpture-1967. (Smithsonian Museum Of The American Indian Collection.)
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