Dena’ina artist Joel Isaak

Dena’ina artist Joel Isaak





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A family engaged in the age-old tradition of fishing and putting up salmon will soon greet the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region as they walk into the expanded hospital in Bethel. Dena’ina artist Joel Isaak created the life-sized statues for the “One’s Spirit” installation. Isaak collaborated closely with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation’s (YKHC) cultural committee in determining how to best represent Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Athabascan people of the region in the figures.  

“One’s Spirit” includes four figures, cast in bronze—father, mother, son and daughter at a fishing site. It shows the father pulling out a net, the son proudly holding a fish taken from it, and the daughter carrying a salmon she has readied to her mother waiting by the drying rack. 

Creating statues that represent many people is challenging and Isaak spent a lot of time finessing the faces. He wanted the people of the region to see “themselves reflected in the statues,” he told an interviewer for KYUK radio in Bethel. He worked hard to capture the nuances in the faces and held many conversations with Yup’ik about the special feature he had noted in the region’s boys. They “have a mischievous face, a smile that Yup’ik boys have,” he told KYUK. Another challenge was capturing the wispy quality of the hair. From what I could discern from photos of the finished bronzes Isaak achieved all he wanted. 

The YKHC Cultural Committee approved language for the plaque that will stand near the installation. The plaque notes how One’s Spirit “exemplifies the traditional values of the Yup’ik, Cup’ik, and Athabascan people of the region and the importance of love, generosity, family, and passing down traditional knowledge. . . the crucial connection and dependence the communities have to the land and waters of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and Bering Sea for sustenance throughout all seasons of the year.” 

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The Bethel installation is the third created by Isaak, a member of the Kenaitze tribe of the Dena'ina Athabascan. Isaak grew up in the Kenai-Soldotna area and is deeply involved in his tribe and the culture of his people. His maternal grandmother came from the village of Ch'aghałnikt at the northern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, which most Alaskans know as Point Possession. This was the name given by Captain James Cook when he took possession of it in June 1778 in the presence of the Dena’ina who lived there. 

Isaak had received a BFA in sculpture from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) that spring. He had also created masks with salmon skin and now wanted to use it to make sculptures. He wanted to learn from other skilled skin artists, view ancient objects in the museum’s collection, and take part in the discussions about the craft. 

He paid close attention, showed curiosity, and asked questions about various aspects of skin sewing. Late in 2014 the museum invited him to conduct a fish skin workshop. He was in Alaska for winter break from his studies for an MFA in sculpture from Alfred University in upstate New York, which he received in 2016.

In the years between undergraduate and graduate school Isaak worked with different materials—salmon skin, moose hide, porcupine quill, birch bark. His work was displayed in galleries in Homer, Seattle, and Anchorage. 

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Isaak than began working on the Anchorage Museuem’s “Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi, The Dena’ina Way of Living” exhibition that opened in September 2013 and included artifacts from museums across Europe and the North America. The overdue exhibition celebrated the original people of Southcentral Alaska who once dominated the region but whose presence shrank when outsiders arrived. 

His work for the exhibition included taking casts of faces of a Dena’ina family to use as the models for the faces of the family shown at the depiction of fish camp on the Newhalen River, the first display visitors saw upon entering the exhibition. It showed two women cleaning salmon at a table set in the shallows of Newhalen River. Nearby, a young boy leaned over a k’usq’a (fish pen) to pick up fish. Isaak also created the fish hanging on the fish racks and in the smoke house. 

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Isaak also contributed to another exhibition diorama depicting an old Dena’ina way of hunting beluga whales. Until about 1830, coastal Dena’ina captured beluga from a platform created by driving an upside tree with its roots intact, usually a spruce, in the mud at the mouth of a river, such as the Kenai, where the beluga came as they chased salmon. A hunter sat on the platform, waited for the beluga, and harpooned it when it came by. Other hunters in kayaks pursued the speared beluga, killed it and hauled it onshore. 

Isaak made the hunter’s face, his fish skin boots, and the harpoon he held in his hand. Most who saw that diorama were surprised at the ingenuity of the Dena’ina and the skill of a new generation in showing it. 

The next year saw Isaak’s first installation unveiled outside the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s new Dena’ina Wellness Center. The center was designed not only to provide dental and medical care, but to honor Dena’ina tradition, culture, and art. 

“Łuq’a Nagh Ghilghuzht” (fish camp) depicts a traditional Dena’ina family at fish camp. Its three figures include a father who holds a fish in one hand and a long pole in the other, a daughter walking toward the mother who stands waiting by the fish rack on which several salmon are drying. The meticulously crafted figures show the family in traditional dress. Isaak captured in bronze the mother and daughter’s plaited hair and the fringes on their dresses. The fish rack mirrors three similar structures attached to the outside of the Dena’ina Wellness Center.

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The second installation by Isaak, at the small boat launch in Anchorage, acknowledges the presence of the Dena’ina of the area, the original inhabitants on whose land the modern city now rises. It honors Olga Nikolai Ezi, a Dena’ina elder known as “Grandma Olga” or “Cheda,” (grandmother) a respected Dena’ina matriarch from Tyone Lake and Eklutna, who died in the mid-20th century. Her statue returned her to a familiar place–the mouth of Ship Creek in Anchorage, a traditional fishing site. 

Not only is Isaak Dena’ina but he is also a distant relative of Olga. According to Isaak, the village of Eklutna wanted a statue of this revered Elder to represent all those who had used the site. “During the growth of the port of Anchorage infrastructure was placed on top of the traditional fishing site, which was a culturally significant area for Dena’ina people,” Isaak said.

Grandma Olga’s statue is the first in Anchorage to honor the Dena’ina people. A statue of Captain James Cook, who sailed up Cook Inlet and took possession of area for the British crown without setting foot on the ground, has long stood in downtown Anchorage. However, there was nothing to honor or acknowledge the people who called the area home for centuries and who still live here. 

Isaak placed Grandma Olga with her back to the looming city behind her. She permanently faces north and holds a fileted salmon in each hand, with more drying on the rack behind her. Again, Isaak’s paid attention to details and portrayed Grandma Olga in a traditional Dena’ina caribou skin dress adorned with porcupine quill embroidery above the fringes at the hem and yoke, fish-skin boots, and a scarf. 

The installation also includes a fish rack hung with salmon and a fish trap. Shadows of fish swimming through a creek engraved into the concrete toward the fish trap draw attention to the importance of fish for the Dena’ina. 

Grandma Olga is now a comforting presence for the people of Eklutna and other Dena’ina in the nearby areas. Her descendants and others in Eklutna are glad to see her at Ship Creek. Isaak used photos of Grandma Olga and her relatives to create a composite face in which her descendants see themselves. The installation also reminds other viewers that Dena’ina people are still around. It is a befitting tribute to a People, and it reclaims a part of their history, long subverted by those came much later.

“People from Eklutna tell me they are moved by the statue. Her descendants are happy to see their Cheda back at the site and they tell her, ‘Welcome home, Cheda,’” Isaak said.

The multitalented Isaak also works hard at preserving his culture, his language and traditions. He is studying the language, learning how to speak it. With the help of Helen Dick of Lime Village, one of the few remaining Dena’ina Elders left who speaks the language, Isaak is learning how to speak it. Dick, a valued mentor, to Isaak continues passing down her knowledge to him. From her Isaak learned how to tan moose hide, to peel bark from birch trees in the spring, and to make traditional baskets from it. Dick is also involved with Isaak and others at Kenai Peninsula College in the creation of the Dena’ina dictionary. 

Isaak is a student once again, now studying for his PhD in Indigenous Studies from UAF. He also embarked on construction of his home along the beach in Kenai–a yurt with a large garage that also serves as his studio all whilst working full-time for the state Department of Education and Early Development as a tribal liaison. His job entails coordinating between the over 200 tribes of Alaska and the department on education issues. He informs the tribes about new policies and passes their concerns to the department. 

Isaak’s work has received accolades from many, including the YKHC Cultural Committee. A spokesperson for the committee said,  “Working with Joel has been a pleasure. The Cultural Committee is thrilled with what he has created and believes the community will be too. It’s a very special piece of art.” 

His latest work now completed, Isaak will take a break from art, at least from large, multi-year projects. Installations like “One’s Spirit” typically take two years from sketching, to modeling in clay, the wax overlay, casting in bronze, and placement. “I will now focus on finishing my PhD. It will take me two more years.” 

In the meantime, he will continue his work with the state and honing Dena’ina language skills, which is important to him. “I wanted to learn Dena’ina since I was a child. It is a way of thinking that makes sense to me. It is also a reflection of the place we live in, with words that describe things with observations.”

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