Eight students, ranging in age from 16 to 74, made a traditional Sugpiaq-styled folding shield and war club throughout this two-week long class at the beginning of August. 

Project: Sugpiaq Shield & War Club Class
Grantee: Ilanka Cultural Center, Native Village of Eyak
Story and photos: Teal Hansen

With assistance from The CIRI Foundation’s (TCF) “A Journey to What Matters” grant program, Ilanka Cultural Center (ICC) offered a Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) Shield and War Club class taught by master carver, Andrew Abyo of Anchorage. Through the honor of this grant, ICC was able to provide an opportunity that allowed the community a chance to revive an art skill inherent in our ancestry and expand their knowledge on the reality of life for Native people in the Chugach Region.

“It is important to teach the community about Native arts and cultural values so that we can maintain respect for Native people and their traditions.”
- Native Village of Eyak (NVE) Tribal Member and CIRI Shareholder, Nick Tiedeman

In traditional Sugpiaq society, warfare was used to garnish wealth, avenge injustices, raise influence, and acquire valuable goods, which included women and slaves. The Sugpiat would war with their own neighboring communities, with Unangax (Aleut’s) to the southwest, Tlingit to the southeast, and with the Dena’ina to the west-northwest. Among other weapons and armor, Sugpiat warriors would carry these wooden clubs and large shields into battle. Sugpiaq stories and legends often lead to conflict and illustrate lessons that were deemed important for future generations.

Throughout our history, majority of this area’s cultural artifacts have been stolen and/or taken to foreign museums or private collections around the world. Because of this, NVE tribal members have never had access to a Sugpiaq-styled shield or war club through Ilanka’s cultural programs or museum. ICC was created in 2004 during a time where many of our tribal members were just beginning to create artwork that illustrated our history with contemporary tools and mediums. As an establishment that represents the indigenous people of the region, we must continue to look at how our culture fits into the contemporary world, where we wish to stand in the future, and do so without losing sight of our past.

By explored traditional concepts taught by Abyo, the class was able to recreate a tool that was necessary for protection, cultural preservation, and took an active role on shaping our history. It is for this opportunity that we sincerely thank The CIRI Foundation for their role in making this class a reality and appreciate their commitment to maintain cultural priorities.