Project: Painting a Vision of Alaska’s Youth
Grantee: Covenant House Alaska
Written by: Jason Searle

Over the course of the last six months, youth of Covenant House Alaska were awarded the valuable opportunity to experience Alaska Native Culture and Art first-hand.

In between rips of fabric and stitches made, beads sewn, drums stretched and paint swept over canvas and walls, there were stories told, values shared and skills gained. Youth of Covenant House Alaska had more opportunities than ever before to learn about and gain hands-on exposure to Alaska Native Culture. Whether these youth were born and raised in rural Alaska before circumstance led them to our doors, Anchorage city kids who were in need of a helping hand, or young individuals whose path led them to Alaska from other areas of the country, all were allowed the chance to learn traditional art forms from Alaska Native Culture bearers — and to freely express themselves.

From Qaspecs to various types of hand drums, each activity offered was open to all youth staying at Covenant House and all staff working who could join in. Artists came to share information about their culture and in doing so, allowed youth an opportunity to explore their own heritage, ask questions and share stories of their own family traditions. Qaspec sewing went on for weeks and youth and staff still proudly wear theirs and tell new youth about how they made them themselves. Our staff also learned how to sew and create clothing in the process and have taken that skill home to share with others, broadening the reach even further. At first the youth were learning these skills themselves. Now many have become the teachers to youth and staff who weren’t able to be a part of these groups. Art is displayed in their rooms, on the walls at the Rights of Passage Program and in the art room at Covenant House Alaska, as well.

Through this project, some found relief from homesickness and reconnection with their culture of origin; others the opportunity to learn about and appreciate a beautiful culture that differed from their own.

The distance between generations appeared to be bridged as these talented local artists so generously and compassionately shared their passion for art, tradition, and culture with the youth of today. In other instances, contemporary art forms were mixed with concepts derived from Alaska Native values, mythology, history, and spirituality, contributing to unique pieces of expression that dared to meld ancestry and tradition with the modern-day struggles of homeless and at-risk youth in the urban environment they now reside.

It is difficult to measure the impact of bringing together youth, elders, artists, and community to celebrate culture but it is positive and noticeable not only in how youth have a platform to celebrate and explore history and family, but also in how staff — who may not share the same history and traditions – now have important common ground and language to connect with youth from around the state.