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Contemporary Unangax̂ artist draws inspiration from ancestral crafts

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Photo courtesy Alex Robinson
Traditionally sewn together to make rain gear, working with seal intestine, or seal gut, has been a common practice on Unangam Tanangin for thousands of years.
download (1).jpg
Photo courtesy Alex Robinson
Traditionally sewn together to make rain gear, working with seal intestine, or seal gut, has been a common practice on Unangam Tanangin for thousands of years.

Taytum x̂anix̂ Robinson is the artist behind Qawax̂ Creations, a contemporary Unangax̂ jewelry line she started about a year ago. Learning how to make earrings began as a hobby for Robinson at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now her small-batch earring collections sell out minutes after sharing on social media.

Robinson is part of a larger group of Indigenous earring makers that have gained traction on social media over the course of the pandemic, which has cultivated connections between artists and customers around the world.

download (2).jpg
Photo courtesy Alex Robinson
Robinson is Unangax̂, from Iluulux̂, or Unalaska. Her family is from the Qawalangam region on Unangam Tanangin, or the Aleutian chain.

Robinson is Unangax̂, from Iluulux̂, or Unalaska. Her family is from the Qawalangam region on Unangam Tanangin, also known as the Aleutian Chain. This is where the name Qawax̂ Creations was born — the homelands and people she gains her inspiration from, she said.

“Aang aang, Taytum x̂anix̂ Robinson asaqtakuq,” Robinson gives her introduction in Unangam Tunuu, saying where she’s from, who her relatives are and where she lives now. “Unangaa akuq. Masuqaĝix̂ akuq. Iluulum tanadgusii ilagaan angitakuq. Dena’inam tanangin kugaan anĝaĝizaq. Adang Thomas Robinson asax̂takux̂. Anang Geri Mello asax̂takux̂. Kukang Maria Turnpaugh.”

Robinson’s jewelry gets more than just its name from her homeland. It’s known on social media for its unique use of seal intestine, or seal gut, which has traditionally been used to make rain gear. Her initiation into this craft started when she came across a community member selling rolls of prepared seal gut.

Robinson said she feels lucky to be able to work with such a unique medium, as seals continue to be harvested on Unangam Tanangin for subsistence.

“I think that it’s sort of working into an unknown future almost,” she said. “But I also think that it reminds me of how important the material [seal gut] that I'm working with is, and how precious it is.”

Robinson also gets inspiration from other traditional art forms. Recently, she’s been creating beaded fringe earrings and incorporating designs that pay homage to Unangax̂ basket weavers.

Robinson’s kukax̂ [grandma], Maria Turnpaugh, was a master basket weaver and Unangam Tunuu speaker from Iluulux̂. Turnpaugh passed away in 2012, but her presence is still widely felt across the region. Her artwork is showcased at the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska, the Museum of Natural History in Anchorage and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

Robinson said her recent earring collection was inspired by her kukax̂’s weaving, but doesn’t copy it.

“I wanted to be able to take elements from it, but not take too much,” she said. “I tried to remain as respectful and mindful while creating these earrings, that they had my own flair, my own artistic touch to them.”

Sewing with traditional materials and finding inspiration in Unangax̂ art has brought personal healing, she said. And although she now lives and works in Anchorage, the ancestral lands of the Dena’ina people, Robinson said her creative work and the people that support her, bring her closer to home.

“This space is so sacred for me,” Robinson said. “Instagram has offered me a specific type of community where I'm able to put out art that has allowed me to heal in a very, very safe space, and I'm so incredibly grateful that I was given the opportunity to be able to do so. Without support, I wouldn't be able to do that.”

As Qawax̂ Creations is approaching its first anniversary of being in business, Robinson says she’s looking forward to finding more ways to give back to the Unangax̂ community.

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