Alaska News

The giant Alaska Federation of Natives craft show has returned, and artists are happy to be back

Alaska Native artists say they’re relieved that the Alaska Federation of Natives arts and crafts show is finally back after the pandemic canceled the event the two previous years.

The bazaar is often their single biggest moneymaker, and its closure added to losses during the pandemic that included shuttered art shops and a slowdown in the tourists who visit the state and often buy their work.

The 2022 Arts and Crafts show launched Thursday and will continue Friday and Saturday at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage.

It’s a cultural extravaganza with more than 150 artists from Alaska villages statewide. They sell crafts typically made from animals and plants they’ve hunted or gathered, like moose hide gloves, whale bone masks, musk ox horn earrings, birch baskets and balms made from wormwood and other plants.

Dennis Pungowiyi, a walrus ivory carver who lives in Wasilla, said Thursday that it was “such a relief” to be back at AFN.

“My sales are already up,” he said early in the day. “It feels like everyone is ready to buy because they haven’t seen this kind of art in a while.”

The lack of the AFN craft show the past two years was a “very big loss” of income, said Pungowiyi, who is Siberian Yup’ik.


He and his son on Thursday were offering dozens of gleaming white ivory carvings — wrinkled walrus, swimming salmon and a narwhal with a tusk fashioned from whale baleen. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Alaska Natives are allowed to sell Native handicrafts made from marine mammal parts.

Pungowiyi wore a necklace affixed with the giant claws of a polar bear. He killed it outside his home village of Savoonga in Northwest Alaska three decades ago, he said.

The AFN convention is a big deal, he said, drawing thousands of visitors from across the state and other countries.

The bazaar can fetch him up to $30,000 in three days, he said.

But the closure of the AFN craft show was only part of the problem for Native artists, he said. Other big events and conventions also shut down the last two years.

It’s only now that many shops have started to sell off their inventory of Native art, to begin making new purchases, Pungowiyi said.

He survived on borrowed money during the pandemic, and help from a private Anchorage art collector who stepped up his buying for the sole purpose of helping Pungowiyi out, he said.

“I was blessed,” he said.

[View the 2022 AFN convention schedule of events]

AFN also distributed pandemic relief checks to artists. They were welcome, but couldn’t make up for lost sales, artists said.

Jeremiah James, who is Tlingit, said he got two $1,000 checks from AFN.

The Southeast Alaska artist from the village of Yakutat said he often makes about $10,000 at the event.

“It was a big hit when AFN wasn’t going on,” he said. “I felt it, so I’m super excited it’s back.”

He focused on increasing online sales during the pandemic. But elder artists who aren’t as familiar with that process often didn’t have that opportunity, he said.

On Thursday, James sold scarves, mittens and other items made from the luxurious brown fur of sea otters he’d hunted with his two daughters, ages 10 and 18. Behind him hung a blanket of nine sea otter pelts he’d sewn together. It was going for $7,000.

Derby caps, made from the spotted white fur of harbor seals he also hunts, were priced at $600.

“I shoot it, I skin it, I eat it, I send it to the tannery and then I stretch it and sew things out of it,” he said.


Shopper Timothy Kane said those cultural values have changed his views about hunting, an activity that, growing up on the East Coast, he was opposed to.

Kane, who recently moved to Alaska from New York, bought a framed Eskimo yo-yo made of wolverine fur for $275. He planned to hang it on his living room wall, an educational showpiece for his friends and family, he said.

“This is unbelievable,” Kane said of the bazaar. “The Native craftsmanship and respect for animals is something new for me. It’s given me a lot deeper appreciation for hunting.”

Kane, who wore a newly purchased qiviut scarf of musk ox wool, purchased the yo-yo from Dennis Sinook, a vendor who brings the work of several artists to the convention to provide income throughout his home village of Shishmaref in Northwest Alaska.

The sales provides cash for families to pay winter heating bills, which are high this year because diesel fuel is extra costly.

His wares on Thursday included dozens of fur slippers, many made from seals he’d caught.

Most importantly, art shows like AFN helps keep alive activities in the village like sewing and carving. It’s great it’s going again, he said.

“Those traditions will die out if we don’t have a place to sell,” he said.

• • •

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or