The Sealaska Heritage Institute’s arts campus is itself a work of art, created in a space transformed by visionaries and ancient arts revived in vibrant, contemporary ways by Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian masters.
The campus building evokes a series of bentwood boxes. In the plaza out front is a 22-foot tall, 360-degree totem pole representing the three Southeast tribes, carved from a 600-year-old red cedar tree. Soon to join it is “Faces of Alaska,” five monumental bronze masks representing Alaska’s major cultural regions.
And to think this space was once a soulless slab of asphalt.
The way Rosita Kaaháni Worl tells it, it’s almost as if the ancestors weighed in where the new arts campus should be.
“I was looking out the window here in our office and saw the sun shining down on the Sealaska parking lot, and I said, that’s where we need to have our arts campus, with the sun coming in from all sides.”
Worl is president of SHI, a Juneau-based nonprofit committed to the revival and sustainability of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.
“We went through a period where our arts were repressed,” she said. “They were saying we were worshiping idols. So, we’ve had to rebuild our arts from the bottom up.”
The Institute’s ever-expanding cultural arts program had outgrown its home in the Walter Soboleff Building, referred to as the “Box of Knowledge.”
The new arts campus, dedicated in 2022, encompasses 7,600-square-feet of indoor and outdoor space. Offerings include in-person and virtual classes in carving, basketry, weaving, textiles, jewelry and more, as well as spaces for larger projects like carving totem poles and canoes. The outdoor space, some of it covered, can be used for teaching, as well as for concerts, dance performances and other community gatherings.
Students can take classes for credit or not, including those seeking art degrees through SHI partners — the University of Alaska Southeast and the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.
The nonprofit’s support of the arts goes well beyond the typical classroom. The Institute has created markets so that rural artists and craftspeople can stay in their villages, continue their subsistence lifestyles and earn money through sales of their work. Through a novel agreement with the Department of Corrections, men and women incarcerated at Lemon Creek Correctional Center can learn new skills as a way of supporting themselves once they are released.
All of these projects contribute to SHI’s quest: to make Juneau the capital of Northwest Coast arts and to have these arts declared a national treasure.