Since as far back as she can remember, Yup’ik artist Amber Webb had known Valerie Sifsof, a family friend who was always smiling and fun to be around. In 2012, news that Sifsof had disappeared from a Kenai Peninsula campground hit hard.

“It was just horrifying to watch her family go through that,” Webb said. “It changed everything for them.”

Sifsof wasn’t the first friend or acquaintance Webb lost, and she wouldn’t be the last. Indigenous women and girls go missing or are murdered at appalling rates across this country.

“We carry this around with us,” Webb said, “a lot of us do.”

 In 2018, she woke up on New Year’s Day to news that yet another Native woman had been killed. 

“I just had to do something,” said Webb, who addresses systemic racism and sexism through her art.

That something became The Qaspeq Project. 

Webb has created two giant qaspeqs (also known as kuspuks) to honor Sifsof and others. The first one, a prototype, is more than 8-feet long and is now part of the Anchorage Museum’s collection. The second is more than 12-feet long, its size symbolizing the space grief occupies in Native people’s hearts. The stark-white qaspeq trimmed in red has hand-drawn portraits of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, not just from Alaska but also Canada and the Lower 48. The piece has nearly 200 faces so far, a number barely scratching the surface. 

The Qaspeq Project has traveled far and wide, from the state Capitol in Juneau to a healing conference in Miami. The U.S. Department of Justice used images of the piece in a video addressing missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

With the qaspeq infused with tragic stories, it’s been a heavy load to bear. Sometimes when working on a portrait, Webb becomes light headed and nauseous.

“I will never forget what happened to the people I’ve drawn.”

But the project has also changed her life in unexpected ways. Before, she worked mostly in labor, as a welder’s assistant and in other industrial jobs. She now works mainly with youth, addressing healthy relationships and intergenerational trauma as a health aide and an opioid overdose prevention peer support coordinator.

“A lot of the working relationships I have now are rooted in connections made through the project. The more I learned, the more I felt it was important to go into the field of prevention.”