Western Alaska crafters prepare for gift-giving season

Earrings designed by Shirley Hootch rotate on a display at a craft fair. (Courtesy Shirley Hootch)

Two small business owners rooted in Western Alaska have spent hours preparing for a busy holiday season. As consumers gear up for gift-giving during the holidays, they have the chance to shop local and support small businesses.

For artists with small businesses, the holiday season kicks off well before the temperature starts to change. Two women from Western Alaska craft pieces that make for special, one-of-a-kind gifts. 

Shirley (Kiparalria) Hootch of Emmonak is a Yup’ik jeweler who specializes in handmade earrings made of caribou antler and walrus ivory. She said she sources her materials through her family in Point Hope.

Hootch comes from a lineage of artists. She said this inspired her to begin making jewelry. The first  earrings she ever created, she said, remains one of her most popular sellers. They resemble traditional Yup’ik masks.

Shirley Hootch’s first design resembled the Yup’ik mask and they remain one of her most popular sellers. Hootch said her grandfather was a mask carver. (Courtesy Shirley Hootch)

“I decided I wanted to make mask earrings just like my grandfather made masks,” Hootch said. “So I made a mask earring and [her mother] loved it. And from there it just took off.”

Hootch participates in craft fairs throughout the year, but makes special designs for the holiday season. She said she never makes more than five pairs of the same earrings, so each pair is truly unique.

“By supporting artists and jewelers and carvers, you get a one of a kind treasure,” she said.

Hootch customizes each pair of mask earrings with different colors and materials.

Nikki (Quluqaaq) Corbett of Bethel is the owner of a popular qaspeq company called “Sew Yupik.” Corbett began her business eight years ago and recently began teaching workshops throughout the state.

Years ago, she joined Hootch at the Alaska Federation of Natives craft fair and sold out her qaspeqs in one day. This year, she shared a booth with her sister, Tina Harness, and sold out her stock in two days. Corbett said that when you support Alaska Native artists through your purchases, you have the chance to engage and connect with their culture.

a booth
A photo of Nikki Corbett of Sew Yup’ik posing at her AFN table in October. She shared her booth with her sister, owner of Urban Atsaq. (Courtesy Nikki Corbett)

She said she began preparing her stock in June, and like Hootch, each of her pieces are specially made.

“I don’t want people to be wearing the same one unless they request it,” Corbett said. “I really tried to make each one individualized with its trimming and the accent hoods, or cowells, or cuffs.”

Corbett said the sewing process begins before she even picks up the needle and thread. She makes sure to set good intentions because if she doesn’t, she says she risks passing negative energy to the piece she’s sewing, and that can transfer to the customer.

“Elders have always said when you’re sewing with something, you don’t want to be sewing and you’re feeling a certain way. [Like] if you’re feeling sad or any other negative feelings,” she said.

For more information or to support these artists, visit their business pages on social media, @Shirley_Hootch_Jewelrey and @SewYupik.

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