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Chevak goes to the beauty counter

Joshua Saul

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Photos courtesy Arxotica
Cika, Michelle and Amy Sparck show off the plants they harvest to make their Arxotica beauty products.

The Sparck triplets grew up in Bethel and spent summers and vacations in Chevak, a small village on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Michelle, Amy and Cika picked berries together on the tundra that surrounded their village, and grew up using the salves and balms Native people across the delta cook up in their kitchens.

Now the three women run a business that they hope will introduce those same traditional remedies to a brand-new audience. The end result is a high-end skin cream, and, they hope, economic improvement for the delta.

A launch party for the three sisters' skin care company, Arxotica, will be held on the sky bridge at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 23, the second day of the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.

Arxotica's debut product is called "Quyunglii," which means "the potent one" in their mother's Cupik language. It's a skin cream made from crowberries, fireweed, and arctic sage, all gathered from the tundra of western Alaska. Another name for the sage is "ciag'lluk," which translates to "nothing bad about it."

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This mix of tundra berries, held here by Cika Sparck, goes into a high-end skin cream that will wholesale for over $175 per ounce.
Arxotica went from dream to reality thanks to a $20,000 Alaska Marketplace award in 2006, which was followed by another $60,000 grant from the same organization in 2007. The awards are sponsored by AFN, and are meant to spur entrepreneurship among Alaska Natives. The Alaska Marketplace program, which is funded by corporations and private groups, is modeled on Development Marketplace, an entrepreneurship program sponsored by the World Bank.

The Sparck sisters have always worked together, from picking salmonberries as girls to running an interstate luxury brand.

Michelle, the oldest triplet and president of Arxotica, did the initial research for the business in 2000. Amy, born four minutes after Michelle, handles the business's communications. Cika was born last, eight minutes after Amy, and is a graphic designer living in San Francisco. Cika created the Arxotica logo, two fireweed blooms seen from above.

Arxotica harvests berries and plants from the Arctic tundra. After being picked either by the sisters or a few helpful villagers, the raw materials are flown to the Kenai Peninsula, where they are dried and processed into small flakes.

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The Sparck triplets, shown here as infants with their mother, Lucy Jones Sparck, hope their fledgling company will eventually bring jobs to the Bethel area.
The next stop is Massachusetts, where a manufacturer transforms the dried sage, berries, and fireweed into a semisolid -- halfway between an oil and a resin.

From Massachusetts the product is sent south to New Jersey, where it is finally packaged into the 1.7-oz. containers that Arxotica will sell wholesale for $300 apiece. There are currently 500 units scheduled to be produced, and they should be ready by Christmas.

Michelle said she knows some people will gasp when they see the price tag, but adds that in the future Arxotica will sell other products that will be less expensive.

"If we're going to come out, we're going to come out big," she said.

The sisters hope their company will eventually bring steady jobs to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Their dream is to build a manufacturing plant near Bethel to employ relatives and neighbors.

"Our region is pretty much the poorest in the state," Cika said.

Still, the idea is to keep Arxotica as a boutique firm, producing small amounts of a luxury product.

Michelle said when she visited community elders to make sure they were comfortable with the idea of Arxotica, people teased her, saying, "Oh, you're going to steal all our berries."

By staying small, the sisters can ensure they're not taking berries that might otherwise end up in a villager's freezer, Michelle said. It helps that crowberries are plentiful around the delta.

"If we had gone after the salmonberries," she said, "I don't think we would have been able to show our face anywhere in the region."

Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul_alaskadispatch.com.