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Alutiiq Museum project hopes to share pinguat with the world

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In 2018, the Alutiiq Museum began a two-year project dedicated to documenting and awakening beading arts in Alutiiq culture.

In the final weeks of the project, the museum is producing instructional videos to share a piece of Alutiiq culture with the world.

The Pinguat, the Alutiiq word for beads, project began in 2018 when the Alutiiq Museum borrowed from a museum in France a rare set of beaded garments, collected nearly 150 years ago from Kodiak.

But this wasn’t just a case of one museum borrowing another’s artifact, as Alutiiq Museum Chief Curator Amy Steffian explains: “The idea was to have, to create documentation of these pieces and to create a replica set so that when they return to France we have a set for our collection. And we put out a call for beaders. June Pardue, who is a master artist, a very talented Alutiiq artist and elder and beader, led the groups, and they suited the pieces in the gallery and recreated the pieces over a five-day period.”

Filmmaker Joshua Branstetter turned that story into a short documentary film called Pinquat, nominated in 2019 for Best Documentary Short by the American Indian Film Institute.

While revitalizing this artistic practice was important for the museum and reclaiming, in a way, artifacts taken from the island over a century ago, another goal was to share beading as an important symbol of Alutiiq identity.

“It preserves the information from the workshop. What the artist have learned is now captured on film," said. "And it can be used for a long long time. We’re preserving this in an archiving museum as well. Fifty years from now, these artists’ grandchildren can see them beading.”

In Alutiiq culture, for instance, beaded headdresses were often ceremonial, symbols of wealth, or representing passage into adulthood or respect for the natural and spirit worlds.

Many of the decorations and patterns on beaded garments were quite lavish.

For advanced beaders, the museum published a pattern book last year documenting how the beaded replicas were made.

And the museum hosted a public beading workshop led by Pardue in late 2019.

“But then the pandemic came. So we rearranged. We created a video. We worked with one of the artists Kayla Christiansen. And did a little video of Kayla making a bracelet," Steffian said. "We made bracelet kits. We sent the kits out. We got kits to the schools to use with their students. We created written instructions. So we created this little set of items — the kits, the written instructions, the videos — so people could do this activity.”

Steffian also called it “One of those ‘covid-tunities’ as somebody said to me the other day.”

So, the final piece of this two-year long, or 150-year-long, international art project is the production of three instructional videos that teach these basic beading skills. The first video is available now on the Alutiiq Museum website, with the other two posted over the next two weeks.

But the ultimate purpose of these videos is to encourage people to take pinguat back to the world.

“We want to train this generation of artists and create a cohort of people who can practice the art and advance their skills, but we also want to encourage them to teach it to others, to novices, to people who are learning or are interested.”

The first beading video features artist Natalia Schneider demonstrating how to create a pair of dangle earrings modeled on ancestral examples. The next two videos will feature demonstrations on making beaded necklaces and beaded cuffs for wrists or ankles.