While all University of Alaska (UA) institutions offer unique traditional Alaska Native courses on languages and arts, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ (UAF) Northwest Campus (NWC) offers an atigi, or a traditional King Island parka making course.
Among the three UA colleges, UAF, University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), and University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), UAF stands as the only university in the United States to offer a class in traditional parka crafting. In Canada, Nunavut Arctic College held a three-week intensive in January where class members made two parkas: one for themselves and another for a child in need. Additionally, it’s the only university worldwide to grant a bachelor’s degree in Alaska Native languages.
Marilyn Koezuna-Irelan has taught the course on campus since 2008. Along with an atigi class in the fall, Koezuna-Irelan offers a kuspuk making course in the spring semester, so that students can wear their kuspuk during the summer.
Koezuna-Irelan learned to make parkas from her mother Rose Koezuna, who was taught by generations before her. Her mother would include her on sewing projects she was working on, and eventually learned to sew her own clothes. She says learning from her family was when she learned the joy of sewing.
“My grandma, (Magdeline) Omiak and then her mom, Suksraq, were very close to my mother and taught her how to sew seal skins, reindeer skins, squirrel skins, all kinds of skins. (Whatever we) were able to get here in our area. She taught every one of us children, 10 of us, how to use a sewing machine.”
The course contributes two credits toward the art requirements necessary for a bachelor’s degree. During the class, students fashion a pattern to their size and sew an atigi, which they can take home upon completing the course. There was a particular student who replicated a parka of her grandmothers, which Koezuna-Irelan said was an amazing experience.
“We have all kinds of students. This last time, I had this one individual, she had a parka that was her grandma’s parka. They were basically about the same size. And so we made a pattern of her grandma’s parka, so that she could make one for herself.”
Koezuna-Irelan finds satisfaction in sharing her knowledge with others because she was raised on values to help people.
“They let us know we have to share and to teach people how to do things. And it didn’t matter where they came from, it was all walks of life, basically.”
This semester, the Northwest Campus offers 13 courses, including Conversational Iñupiaq, which equips students with the ability to speak Iñupiaq. Koezuna-Irelan says she grew up fluently speaking Iñupiaq and first learned English in kindergarten. She notes that introducing traditional Alaska Native lifestyle courses at a collegiate level motivates people to enroll.
“I think it’s really, really good that, you know, we’re able to provide this kind of a class because, you know, basically what I’m doing is, in my mind, I think that I’m like being an ambassador of my culture, my tribe of King Island.”
UAF’s Northwest Campus provides both in-person and online courses. The course fee is $340, or $290 if registered before September 9th. For those interested in registering or seeking admission to the Northwest Campus, call 443-2201 or visit their website.
Image at top: Instructing an atigi making course in 2020 , photo provided by Barb Amarok