Sewn into History: Ecology, Resilience, and Josephine Wassillie’s Inuguaq
by Elizabeth Humphrey
Winterthur Program in American Material Culture
University of Delaware
I’m just proud of my dolls because a lot of qassaks [white people] liked them…a mechanic said that he’s been to lot of places but he never saw a neat doll like the doll I made…He said it was the neatest doll he ever saw.
– Josephine Wassillie to Mabel McKeague, May 29, 1964
Before I began research for the Fall 2018 exhibition, “The World is Following its People”: Indigenous Art and Arctic Ecology at the University of Delaware, dolls gifted by Mabel and Harley McKeague did not have attributed artists. The McKeague gift to the Museums, part of the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press in 2001, contains Yup’ik baskets, clothing, practical tools, and miniatures, as well as letters, reports, documents, and photographs from the McKeagues’ time in Alaska. As I scoured the archives during research, the name “Josephine” appeared numerous times. It was only after combing through Mabel McKeague’s photographs that a fuller picture of her identity emerged – Josephine Wassillie (1927–2012) was a Yup’ik woman who lived in the town of Kasigluk, Alaska (fig. 1). Two of Wassillie’s inuguat (dolls) are in the collection: the female inuguaq (doll) discussed at length in this essay, as well as a male version (figs. 2-3). The inuguat highlight Josephine Wassillie’s artistry, skill, and attention to detail. The dolls also serve as an expression of Yup’ik resilience in the face of settler colonialism, especially following the establishment of Alaska’s statehood in 1959. Settler colonialism disrupted established sub-Arctic ecologies and cultural practices and prompted Yupiit to adopt strategies to maintain their lifeways. Before we explore how Wassillie’s inuguat embody cultural meanings, we need to understand the socio-political context in which they were created.
Harley recommended that his wife Mabel accompany him on this field project to build rapport between the federal employees and local Yup’ik field interviewers, who were mostly women.[ii] Josephine Wassillie was one of the local interviewers. Before working on the morbidity study, Wassillie played an active role in maintaining cultural knowledge and practice. In 1956, she served as Handicraft Leader in the Agoola chapter of the 4-H club, working to write an instructional guide for making mukluk (boots) in partnership with the University of Alaska Extension Service.[iii] The elders’ council of Kasigluk recommended Wassillie for the interviewer role.[iv] She worked alongside the McKeagues as a translator and interviewer, helping them gather health and illness-related data for their project. It is unclear whether Josephine and another Yup’ik interpreter, Lucy Albrite, whose mittens for Harley McKeague are included in the University of Delaware collection, were paid for their work. The archives indicate that Mabel McKeague’s question regarding this subject went unanswered by Frances E. Kester, then Director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Alaska.
Wassillie created the two inuguat for Mabel McKeague between 1959 and 1964. Although we do not know whether Mabel McKeague purchased the female inuguaq from Wassillie, their correspondence confirms that McKeague commissioned and purchased the male inuguaq for $7.50.[v] In her reply to Wassillie, Mabel McKeague mentioned her appreciation for Josephine’s
[i] “Visitors in City,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 29, 1958, sec. Social News, http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/16425508/?terms=McKeague&pqsid=ohRpoOhi_IQVPnkvnAd76Q%3A346000%3A100770905; “Plan Disease Studies for State Villages,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, October 20, 1959, http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/14796867/?terms=McKeague&pqsid=ohRpoOhi_IQVPnkvnAd76Q%3A346000%3A100770905; Ancestry.com, “Harley T. McKeague, 1940 United States Federal Census” (National Archives and Records Administration at Washington, D.C.), Records of the Bureau of the Census, accessed May 17, 2018, https://search.ancestryinstitution.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?_phsrc=ajk2&_phstart=successSource&usePUBJs=true&gss=angs-g&new=1&rank=1&gsfn=harley%20t.&gsfn_x=0&gsln=mckeague&gsln_x=0&msypn__ftp=michigan&mssng=mabel&catbucket=rstp&MSAV=1&uidh=q7i&pcat=ROOT_CATEGORY&h=76991807&dbid=2442&indiv=1&ml_rpos=1.
[ii] McKeague, Harley, “Harley McKeague to Frances E. Kester,” Letter, May 11, 1960, Harley and Mabel McKeague Collection, University of Delaware.
[iii] According to a June 1956 news article Josephine, and other members of the Agoola 4-H club, were writing an instructional guide to create mukluks. Lucy Albrite, creator of the beaded mittens in the exhibition, was also a member of this club. See “Kasigluk 4-H’ers Write Book on Mukluk Project,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 11, 1956, sec. Women’s World, http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/10396539/?terms=josephine%2Bwassilie&pqsid=ohRpoOhi_IQVPnkvnAd76Q%3A162000%3A225115199.
[iv] McKeague, Mabel, “Mabel McKeague to Frances E. Kester,” February 11, 1960, Harley and Mabel McKeague Collection, University of Delaware.
[v] McKeague, Mabel, “Mabel McKeague to Josephine Wassillie,” July 22, 1964, Harley and Mabel McKeague Collection, University of Delaware..
Wassillie’s dolls also created income to support basic needs, enabling her to adapt Yup’ik subsistence practices to the continued effects of settler colonialism. In 1955, a Bureau of Vital Statistics report noted that Kasigluk Yupiit continued migrating seasonally, moving near Bethel along the Kuskokwim River around summer.[ii] However, the subsequent establishment of Euro-American local and boarding schools required Yupiit to settle in concentrated areas, making it difficult to support themselves solely through subsistence practices such as hunting. Producing commercial art helped offset costs associated with new equipment such as fuel, motorized vehicles, and ammunition that Yupiit used to maintain established lifeways amid these disruptions.[iii]
Yup’ik ecology is threaded through the formal design and contextual meaning of the inuguat. Yup’ik knowledge situates humans within their environment, focusing on the relations between human, animal, material, and spiritual worlds.[iv] Central to understanding these ecological relations is the idea of reciprocity. Yupiit view many aspects of their environment as sentient. Animals, land, and climate all respond to human behavior, rewarding humans that adhere to qanruyutet, “words of wisdom” and instructions that guide life. Apathetic or negative behavior produces poor environmental outcomes like bad weather or a lack of resources.[v] The reciprocal nature of Yup’ik ecology manifests itself in subsistence practices. When detailing human-animal
[i] McKeague, Mabel.
[ii] Morris, Marjorie, “DDSS, Field Visit – Kuskokwim” (Kasigluk, AK: Bureau of Vital Statistics, Department of Health and Welfare, Juneau, n.d.), Harley and Mabel McKeague Collection, University of Delaware.
[iii] Ann Fienup-Riordan, The Way We Genuinely Live: Yuungnaqpiallerput: Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival (Seattle : [Anchorage]: University of Washington Press ; In Association with Anchorage Museum of History and Art and Calista Elders Council, 2007), 13.
[iv] Marie Meade, “Sewing to Maintain the Past, Present and Future,” Études/Inuit/Studies 14, no. 1/2 (1990): 14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42869691.
[v] Ann Fienup-Riordan and Alice Rearden, Ellavut, Our Yup’ik World & Weather: Continuity and Change on the Bering Sea Coast (Seattle; Anchorage, Alaska: University of Washington Press ; Calista Elders Council, 2012), 10, 59.
The inuguat primarily incorporate materials procured through hunting since Yupiit used as much of the animal as possible. In discussing their resourcefulness, Yup’ik elder Teresa Moses states, “if they have enough [materials] to make a parka, even though they added other kinds of skins, they use them together and make a parka.”[ii] Wassillie’s female inuguaq illustrates this idea through its mixed use of squirrel, mink, caribou, wolverine, and fox skins.[iii] Artists created sewing thread from yualuq (animal sinew), employing qunavutet (sinew splitters) to retrieve the material. Ciilat (needles) fashioned from animal bones or walrus ivory were used for sewing waterproof, overcast, and running stitches. While the materiality of Wassillie’s inuguaq reflects Yup’ik ecological understanding and technical skill, the doll’s atkuk (parka) also incorporates cultural symbols and meanings transmitted through oral history and artistic design. The art of dollmaking was passed intergenerationally through observation, listening, and practice. For example, Yup’ik inuguaq maker Caroline Kava Penayah learned her craft by watching women in her family sew different stitches and applying this knowledge to her own projects.[iv]
The inuguaq’s atkuk resembles the one Wassillie wears in the photograph, reflecting styles found in the Kuskokwim River and Bay regions. Qaliq, or plates of calfskin, were used on the doll’s parka, which was further decorated with six tassels of wolverine in the front and back.[v] These elements were some of the many designs that a maker could incorporate into an atkuk according to their aesthetic choices. Yup’ik scholar Marie Meade describes the diversity of design characteristics and their meanings: “The tassels which we call alngat are attached to
[i] Fienup-Riordan and Rearden, 17.
[ii] Fienup-Riordan, 310.
[iii] According to a 1963 written account, of the most common and abundant animals in Kasigluk in the 1960s were mink, muskrat, beaver, fox, and wolf. These animals’ skins could then be used to create Yup’ik clothing. See “Kasigluk, Alaska – An Eskimo Village (Prepared by Upper Grade Students of 1962-1963, with the Guidance of Mr. Walter McLain, Teacher)”” (Kasigluk, AK: Bureau of Vital Statistics, Department of Health and Welfare, Juneau, 1963), Harley and Mabel McKeague Collection, University of Delaware.
[iv] Chase Hensel, “Everything Old Is New Again: Interviewing Alaska Native Doll Makers,” in Not Just a Pretty Face: Dolls and Human Figurines in Alaska Native Cultures, by University of Alaska Museum, ed. Molly Lee (Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 2006), 56–57.
[v] Meade, “Sewing to Maintain the Past, Present and Future,” 231–34. For an additional example of this style parka, see Fienup-Riordan, The Way We Genuinely Live, 262.
Wassillie’s inuguat are examples of Yup’ik artistry and knowledge that pay homage to the source of the materials used. The inuguat also speak to the resourcefulness of Wassillie and her community in the context of settler colonial impositions. Although inuguat, like mingqaaq (pl. coiled basket) and mukluk, became commodities needed to support Yupiit economically, they still served as models of elaborate, decorative Yup’ik clothing and required a high level of skill to construct. This knowledge reflects ideas of interconnectivity and reciprocity that are central to Yup’ik ecology. Wassillie’s decision to adorn the female inuguaq in Yup’ik outerwear can be understood as an act of resilience. Through such choices, she and other women adapted Yup’ik lifeways to persevere in the face of adversity. Today, her inuguat exemplify the innovative means by which Yup’ik communities retain their cultural practices, knowledge, and identity through art produced for non-Indigenous peoples.
[i] Meade, “Sewing to Maintain the Past, Present and Future,” 231–34.
[ii] Meade, 230.
Museums Collections, Gift of Mabel & Harley McKeague