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September 26, 2015

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: The Shungnak Jade Project

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) supported many regional and tribal arts projects in Alaska. In the 1960s, the IACB created a touring exhibition on the arts of Alaska. In 1966, the board devoted the fall/winter issue of its newsletter, Smoke Signals, to Alaska's arts enterprises. In that issue, George Fedoroff (1906–2001), the IACB specialist for Alaska, explained that the state's vast territory, geographic isolation, and irregular access to materials and technologies affected the production, support, and marketing of Alaska Native arts and crafts.[1] The IACB, therefore, paid special attention to assisting Native craftspeople through training and development workshops such as wood carving in Sitka, metalworking at the University of Alaska Extension Center for Arts and Crafts in Fairbanks, printmaking in Nome, and sculpting in Port Chilkoot. 

256807 Shungnak jadeJade samples,1960. NANA Regional Corporation, Shungnak, Alaska. Nephrite, 16.9 x 8.2 x 9.5 cm. Purchased in 1960 from the Shungnak Jade Project. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/6807 


During the 1950s, the Alaska Native Service and the IACB collaborated on supporting the Shungnak Jade Project, an Inupiat arts and crafts enterprise located in the town of Shungnak in the Northwest Arctic Borough. The name Shungnak is a derivation of issingnak, the Inupiaq word for jade, and the town lies in the Kobuk River Valley, which is known for its jade deposits. For thousands of years, the Inupiat have used jade for tools such as adzes and scrapers. An elder told Frank Long, the IACB production specialist assigned to the jade project from 1953 to 1957, that “knife blades, creasing tools, sharpeners, axe blades of jade were highly prized and of great trading value, since they were sharper and more durable than those of any other material.”[2]

 

256806 Shungnak earringsAn IACB brochure promoted the Shungnak Jade Project as “a business owned and operated by the Eskimo people of Shungnak.”[3] Instead of constructing jade tools, the project produced pieces for the tourist market—earrings, pendants, bracelets, and pins set in silver and gold. Popular items included heart and cross pendants, but also necklaces and earrings representing stylized seals, such as the set below in yellowish-green jade. The project wanted buyers to know that, unlike jade jewelry sold in other Alaskan shops, these works were locally made from Kobuk jade. 

256269 Shungnak set

Upper right: Earrings, 1960. NANA Regional Corporation, Shungnak, Alaska. Jade, metal jewelry findings; 3.7 x 1.5 x 0.4 cm. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/6806.  Above: Necklace and earrings representing stylized seals, 1953–54. NANA Regional Corporation, Shungnak, Alaska. Jade, gold jewelry findings, metal chain; 28 x 1.4 x 0.2 cm. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/6269


During its first year in 1951, the project grossed $350. That figure rose to $4,830.19 in 1954.[4] The project hired George O. Cleveland (Inupiaq) as its manager in 1953 (he also ran the post office). In the summer months, the artisans staffed a demonstration and sales shop in Kotzebue, a popular post-World War II tourist locale about 150 air miles west of Shungnak. The sales shop occupied a Quonset hut owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The project also sent jewelry to the Alaska Native Arts and Crafts Clearing House in Juneau for sale.

Despite its gross sales and number of trained artisans, the Shungnak Jade Project was ended in 1963. Three years earlier in an IACB report, Daniel Burlison, the IACB specialist who replaced Long, explained that the project had been plagued by faulty and damaged equipment, which resulted in “a complete halt in operation . . . [for] weeks” until the arrival of replacement parts or new equipment.”[5] Since the lapidary equipment required power, the project operated from the basement of the Bureau of Indian Affairs school, which often complained about the dwindling gasoline reserves. Furthermore, Burlison found that “less than 10% of all jade secured in this area is of gem quality.”[6]

In a subsequent letter to the IACB Headquarters in Washington, Fedoroff described the multiple obstacles in obtaining the jade itself.

To begin with, it is almost a 50-mile trip by small boat and outboard motor. In actual distance it is not this far, but the many bends and twists in the river add to the mileage. . . . The best possible condition for hunting and securing jade on the Shungnak comes when the river is at its lowest; consequently, getting even a small board and supplies up this river means getting out of the boat every few hundred yards in order to get over the shallows and gravel bars. Pulling a loaded boat against the current for half-mile stretches can be quite a strenuous exercise, and the poor footing in the river bottom over rocks, boulders, and slime does nothing to improve the situation. Hordes of millions of mosquitoes do nothing to improve one’s disposition.

The IACB purchased these jewelry items and the piece of raw jade from the Shungnak Jade Project through George Cleveland and Frank Long for exhibition purposes. Unfortunately, the names of the artisans were not listed in the records.

—Anya Montiel


Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is part of a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection at the museum.


[1] George Fedoroff, “Alaska: Design for Today,” Smoke Signals: A Circular for Craftsmen 50–51 (Fall-Winter 1966): 5.

[2] Frank Long, “Alaskan Jade,” Smoke Signals: A Circular for Craftsmen 8 (August 1953): 12.

[3] “Shungnak Jade Project,” no date, brochure, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Record Group 435; National Archives, Washington DC.

[4] Frank Long, IACB Arts and Crafts specialist, to J. Edward Davis, IACB General Manager, 25 March 1955, letter, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Record Group 435; National Archives, Washington DC.

[5] Daniel Burlison, IACB Arts and Crafts specialist, to IACB, report entitled “Report: Results and Development in Promoting Eskimo Arts and Crafts above the Arctic Circle,” March 1960, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Record Group 435; National Archives, Washington DC.

[6] Ibid.

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