Kuspuks are a beautiful display of Alaska Native culture and traditions. There are many techniques, designs, and ways to showcase and sell kuspuks and kuspuk makers. Alaska Native and non-Native people are wearing them at home, office, special events and elsewhere. It gives people cultural pride to make, sell and wear.
The surge in the kuspuk world has caused so much interest, a Facebook group was created by Jorie Paoli (described on the next page) as a forum for sharing designs and selling kuspuks. Commonly worn by Alaska Native people, kuspuks are hooded shirts with a large front pocket(s). There are many styles that vary in length, pattern, trim, fabric choice and size. Worn by men and women throughout Alaska, kuspuks are generally made of calico print fabric, or darker and solid colors for men. They are used for a variety of events and can be dressed up or down. Many people wear them when picking berries to keep out mosquitoes and gnats.
Increasing numbers of individuals and organizations participate in Kuspuk Friday or Wear It Wednesday, including Alaska’s legislators. There are traditional style kuspuks and contemporary designs too. Kuspuks are functional garments, and are increasingly becoming more popular as business attire. There are fancier kuspuks made of lace or sheer material. It is the primary attire for Alaska Native dancers. As the demand for the garment has increased, more people have entered the market and have found popular ways of marketing and selling them as described below.
Kuspuk designs vary from region to region. The words to describe the garment also vary by Alaska Native group.
Language Translations for the Kuspuk
Iñupiaq = atikłuk
Yup’ik = qaspeq
King Island = Iñupiaq ug̈iłhaaq
Aleut gut parka = chigdax́
Central Koyukon Athabascan = bets’egh hoolaanee
Lower Koyukon Athabascan = metse’eghe hoolaane
Gwich’in Athabascan = vitleetsal
Deg Hit’an Athabascan = vitthigits’igh xelan
Nikki Corbett is a Yup’ik qaspeq maker born and raised in Bethel. For the past year, she has taught over 200 people the art of making kuspuks in Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel, Takotna, Ketchikan, Homer, Seldovia, Anchorage and Soldotna. Nikki’s students range in age from 11 to 86 years old. The 11 year old (now 12) is taking orders for the kuspuks she makes. Nikki sells her kuspuks, and because of widespread demand, is not worried about working herself out of a job by teaching others.
Nikki entered her first kuspuk in a contest at age nine. She enjoys creating designs and working with different fabrics. She started out making traditional kuspuks, and learned how to make the contemporary designs from teachers including Michelle Koenig. Michelle is well-known for teaching contemporary style kuspuk making. People from rural Alaska usually learn to make kuspuks from their mothers, aunts or grandmothers. Nikki enjoys teaching people who may not have had the opportunity to learn to make them.
Nikki’s business, Sew Yup’ik, has customers from all over Alaska and parts of the Lower 48. Nikki shares pictures of her kuspuks and other products on Instagram and Facebook under Sew Yup’ik and has a website at sewyupik.com. She lives in Soldotna and uses her website and social media to reach people from afar.
Nikki had a tough childhood and often shares her personal story to inspire youth. She says, “I have always been open to share my past with the students that I have taught in hopes they can count on me if they ever need someone to talk to. Life is not defined by your past but how you choose to deal with it and move forward.” Besides teaching traditional arts, Nikki is interested in the medical field. She began attending the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s Associate of Applied Science Nursing degree at the Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel.
Nikki encourages people to reach out to relatives and friends if they are interested in learning to make kuspuks. She also encourages people to take a class. Nikki occasionally teaches classes; kuspuk making classes are also offered at universities and other places. People inquire about purchasing kuspuk patterns, but because each person is a specific size and shape, Nikki advises it is difficult to make one pattern to fit all.
There are hundreds of Alaska Native people who make and sell kuspuks throughout Alaska and beyond. They may not have the time or resources to maintain a website and/or social media channels. Jorie Paoli started a Facebook group called Alaska Native Made Qaspeqs, Kuspuks, Atikluks, Be’tsegh’/Me’tsegh’ Hoolaanh. There are currently over 1,300 people in the group. Jorie saw a need for a consistent space for people to share and sell their designs. Customers from all over are looking to buy kuspuks and most people who make them are on Facebook. Transactions can occur directly between the buyers and sellers. There is a high interest in purchasing kuspuks made by Alaska Natives. From Jorie’s Facebook group:
Alaska Native Made Qaspeqs, Kuspuks, Atikluks, Be’tsegh’/Me’tsegh’ Hoolaanh Description on Facebook
Traditional clothing such as kuspuks/qaspeqs (Yup’ik), atikłuks (Iñupiaq) and be’tsegh’ / me’tsegh’ hoolaanh (Koyukon) have a rich history within indigenous cultures across much of Alaska, and there are incredible artisans across the state that craft styles that vary greatly by community, culture and even family – not to mention sheer creativity and ingenuity! This group offers an online market space to connect with and directly support Alaska Native artists that make our beautiful traditional clothing. Please note: Transactions (monetary and otherwise) are arranged strictly between buyers and sellers – if you have any questions about the things you’re buying in this group, please work directly with the seller.
Although Jorie started the Facebook group, it was never her intention to own it. She wants it to be whatever Alaska Native kuspuk makers want it to be. Jorie says, “It’s our knowledge to use, to share, to learn. It’s for Alaska Native artists all over the state.”
Kuspuks may change and evolve over time, but the traditional art is not going away anytime soon.