The Sheldon Jackson Museum’s December Artifact(s) of the Month is a pair of dolls made by Cup’ik artist Neva Mathias (2017-3-1). The dolls were given to the museum by Sue Thorsen in July of 2017. Thorsen received the dolls as a gift from Mathias after the two women connected at the Sheldon Jackson Museum. While talking, the women realized that Sue had known Neva’s mother from her work in Chevak in the 1970s. Eager to share the beautiful dolls with a wider audience, Thorsen, with Mathias’s approval, generously donated the dolls to the museum’s permanent collection.
According to Mathias the December dolls are women who are best friends, named after her maternal and paternal grandmothers, Maaya and Maacung. The whimsical dolls have wrinkled sealskin faces with gleeful smiles and beaming, joyous eyes. They wear rabbit fur ruffs with small tufts of wolf fur on each side of their faces and colorful kuspuks sewn in traditional style with brightly contrasting rickrack, purple leggings, and traditional style sealskin mukluks and mittens. Both women have an arm extended across the back or shoulders of the other in a caring gesture of friendship and familial love.
Alaska Natives have been making dolls for a variety of purposes for at least two thousand years. The majority of dolls made early on were probably used for charms, ceremonial purposes, or toys for educating children. Dolls that were charms were sometimes used as house guardians, for important rituals to encourage fertility or the birth of a son, or were used to represent a person absent from a ceremonial occasion. Shamans used dolls to effect healing or to direct energies towards a person. Among some Yupiit, dolls were placed on top of burial sites. Central Yupiit and Deg Hit’an Athabaskans used dolls to help foretell the availability of game.
In ancient times, men may have been the primary makers of dolls of all kinds, especially those made for use in rituals. This was largely the result of Alaska Natives’ traditional division of labor systems in which women typically worked with skins, grasses and other soft materials, whereas men tended to work with ivory, bone, and wood, the most common materials used to make dolls.
Today, dolls are sometimes still made for young girls as toys, but they are also popular collectors’ items and objects of art that symbolize and represent traditional activities and clothing styles and tools to help remember myths and folktales. The majority of contemporary dolls represent females except for males included in family sets or males that illustrate activities traditional to their sex. There are also a few doll makers such as Floyd and Amelia Kingeekuk of Savoonga who exclusively make male dolls.
Doll making in Chevak, where Neva Mathias is from, has flourished during the last three decades. Doll makers there including Neva Mathias; Rosalie, Janice, and Ursula Paniyak; Betty Fermoyle, Rose Kanrilak, Monica Friday, Natalia Nayamin, and Anna Martins have achieved great notoriety for their innovations in aesthetics and their ability to convey visual anecdotes about village life through their dolls.
Mathias, one of Chevak’s most prominent doll makers, and also an expert basket maker, began making dolls in 1988 and learned the process and how to prepare doll and basketry materials from her mother. Her dolls are made with seal leather faces with pinched and stitched features; seal, rabbit, and wolf fur; seal intestine (for parkas); sealskin for mukluks, mittens, packs, straps, and buckets; glass bead eyes; cotton bodies, cotton thread; and occasionally, driftwood. Her dolls and basketry are in the collections of the Sheldon Jackson Museum, the Alaska Native Medical Center, the Smithsonian, and the University of Alaska Museum of the North, among others and she has taught doll making in Sitka and in Bethel.
Mathias was selected among a pool of many applicants to be an artist-in-residence at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in the summer of 2015. While here, she taught a wildly popular doll making class. To this day, Mathias continues to make coiled baskets, which she focuses on during the summer, and dolls, which she makes whenever she has free time.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum is home to over seventy dolls or examples of doll garments and accoutrements. The December Artifacts of the Month may be seen at the museum Tuesday through Saturday between 10am and noon and 1pm and 4pm. They will be exhibited until December 31st. General admission is $6, $5 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of either the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.
Fair, Susan. Alaska Native Art: Tradition, Innovation, Continuity. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2006.
Lee, Molly, et al. Not Just a Pretty Face. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Museum, 1999.
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