Erin Ggaadimits Ivalu Gingrich

Erin Ggaadimits Ivalu Gingrich is a Koyukon Athabaskan, Inupiaq, and settler carver, painter, and beadworker whose work connects with the historically traditional beliefs of her ancestors on the value of our natural environment as gifts gathered from the land. A childhood spent across the state of Alaska imposed a personal impression of Alaska’s biological diversity. This, mixed with an experience of Alaska’s sacred subsistence lifeways, informs her understanding that the true value of Alaska’s ecosystems is immeasurable and a gatherable gift that was cared for by our ancestors. To communicate these beliefs, Erin’s work explores representations of these resources that make our environment unique through carved, painted, and beaded sculptural mask forms. Erin’s family connections are to the communities of Nome, Nulato and Utqiagvik and she currently lives and works on the Denaʼina Homelands of Anchorage and Cohoe, Alaska.

When looking at the work of Kivetoruk Moses, the viewer realizes that what is represented goes beyond scenes of daily life. They represent a lived experience, one that knows the complexity of existing in an Arctic landscape, how to survive within it, and remain in relationship with it. This knowledge is evident in his illustrations, detail, care, and repetitiveness of his subjects: the landscape, the animals, the people.

Artist’s Work

Conversation With Erin Ggaadimits Ivalu Gingrich

Melissa Shaginoff: Hi Erin, could you introduce yourself and a little bit of what you do?

Erin Gingrich: Sure, I am Erin Ggaadimits Ivalu Gingrich, Erin Gingrich. I am an Athabascan and Inupiaq artist. I am a carver, I am a bead worker, I am a painter, I am a designer, and I make Indigenous regalia, among many other things. My work is primarily carved, painted, and beaded representations of living and sustainable resources that feed us here up in Alaska. The reason why I represent these resources is to practice my Indigenous beliefs in that what we gather from the environment is given to us. And we need to honor and respect those things in order to maintain a sustainable relationship with them. And to practice gratitude, the systems of gratitude that my ancestors built around their subsistence practices. I’m really excited to talk more about Kivetoruk Moses.

Melissa Shaginoff: I know you know a little bit about Kivetoruk’s history and his journey to art. Can you share what you think about that, and maybe a little about yourself and your artwork?

Erin Gingrich: As contemporary Indigenous people, him getting injured and having to adjust and adapt to make art for his living, I think is such a real, modern Indigenous struggle. I think I’m living that. I’ve had to change the way that I live and adapt to outside circumstances. It’s a modern struggle that we all experience and I think that that, in and of itself, is just so relatable because we all experience things like that and have to shift and adjust to survive. 

And what’s come out of that, following the path that is laid out for you is, I think that it’s meaningful. I was introduced to his work when I was in college. There was a poster about him and his work that one of the professors had made. I think they were trying to write a book about him, I don’t know if they ever published it, but I never really investigated this. I can be quite wary of images of Indigenous people, when you don’t know if they are by Indigenous people. Sometimes it can be challenging when you’re faced with those, but when I did take the time to read about it, it was just a small summary of his life in the timeframe, but I always felt curious about Kivetoruk as an Indigenous artist.

I think that Moses’s work really shows an Indigenous adaptation to those Western ideas. I think it is really interesting to see because that’s something that assimilation really tried to stop. Assimilation did not want us to adapt to our circumstances as Native people. With all of our culture and our heritage and our Native ways of being, it wanted to stop that and pause it. It is wonderful to see Native people who have adapted to these new technologies, these new ideas, and made amazing things. I think Kivetoruk Moses’s work offers a real representation of Indigenous people. From that time there are so few realistic representations of Native people. Kivetoruk’s work feels so authentic because there’s no over glorification, there is no romanticizing of them, there’s no primitivizing of them, there’s no posing in ways that feel like performance.

Melissa Shaginoff: Tsin’aen, you really put that beautifully. As Indigenous people, looking at these pieces, we have an important perspective that should be shared when viewing Kivetoruk’s work, right? We are not necessarily so separated from it.

Erin Gingrich: Yeah. I also wanted to point out that some of these paintings and drawings, they feel like polaroids or cell phone photographs. You do feel like you’re there, you feel like you’re in Nome, and you’re there and you’re standing in the Arctic. From the perspective that you’re seeing, it feels like you’re at the height of a person in this scene, and you’re not separated from it. Which I think, really, is the important aspect that you find in artworks done by Indigenous people. You’re not separated from the environment; you’re not separated from the people because they are your people, this is your home, this is your environment, and there’s no need to over glorify it or make it look dangerous or scary.

Melissa Shaginoff: Exactly. Our perspective on Kivetoruk needs to be shared because of what you just said. 

Erin Gingrich: Another thing I really love is that the colorization of the snow is so much better than so many other artists. Western artists who haven’t been to the Arctic put in greens that aren’t really up north. It’s so white and blue, and different tones of white and blue and gray, sometimes purple and pink, but the colorization is just, it’s right. It just feels right. And I think that’s something that’s important too.

The complexities of snow, some people don’t understand that. There’s no grasping of it that snow is a complex and different thing. Just in any Indigenous arctic language, snow has so many words to describe what it is, what it does, what it’s doing, and how you should relate to it. Indigenous artists being able to depict that is because they’re an expert and because they live in that environment. It is such a telling thing. When we think about people who travel to these places for the first time in their lives, they depict ice as these lightning bolts that come out of the water sometimes. It’s just really, really exaggerated and made into this monumental thing. I think this is an attempt to glorify and exaggerate the danger because western people talk about the Arctic as being this wasteland. As this thing that needs to be conquered, so the Arctic must become that formidable and not hospitable place. It has to be depicted as a struggle for people to live in, which is such a silly narrative because my ancestors have been living there for so long, and there’s a love for it. There’s an understanding of it. It’s not something that we had to fight actively all the time.

Our lifeways challenge that directly because we didn’t need to conquer it, we didn’t need to destroy it, to alter it, to melt the ice, we didn’t need to do those things. We don’t need to build gigantic bridges. We figured out how to navigate this world and this environment without destroying it by having a sustainable relationship with it. Which I think now people are starting to learn as a vital part of existing, building sustainable relationships with your environment, and having balanced relationships.

Melissa Shaginoff: Yes, absolutely. When we talk about current issues and crises we are facing like climate change, we must acknowledge that imperialism and colonization are to blame. And that we must return to those balanced ways you were talking about to find any sort of solution…sorry. I got a little off-topic. 

Erin Gingrich: Haha, it’s okay.

Melissa Shaginoff: You talked a little bit about subsistence. Do you think you could talk a little bit about that within the context of Nome specifically?

Erin Gingrich: Yeah, absolutely. Subsistence is such a beautiful practice; it’s integrated with our historical practices, and the systems of gratitude, and sustainability that our ancestors designed. It’s just an amazing thing to participate in. And there’s so much to be grateful for when you get to participate in that. A lot of the practices I got to experience growing up revolved around berry picking in the tundra up in Nome. Those experiences shaped me and continue to shape and ground me in ways that I can hardly describe being on the land and being a part of it. Feeling connected, feeling the tundra underneath your feet, it’s something I can hardly explain right now. I actually didn’t get to go berry picking because of the pandemic, except for once. It’s been really difficult. 

There’s such a magical thing about subsistence, as well as a harsh reality about it, too. When I was a little girl, one of my first memories was a moose harvest. My mom had got her very first moose in Nome, and my grandparents brought us out to go help them harvest this animal. I was like two, so I was quite young. They brought me out to the animal that had given itself. I had to climb through what I felt like trees, but they were probably bushes, the little willows. Then we came upon this massive animal that had given itself to my family. And I just remember feeling how incredibly magical and special it was, and what an enormous gift I got to experience that. I grew up knowing what hunting was, knowing that it was hard work, and knowing that it was very serious work, and a very important work. It is vital.

I truly believe that animals give themselves to the right people, and they make that choice. And it’s our job to then be gracious and provide gratitude. To honor and respect and take care of the space that these animals live in so that they can have a future along with us, because we exist side by side. We don’t exist in separate realms.

Melissa Shaginoff: What happens when we are separated from these things, subsistence and the land?

Erin Gingrich: It creates challenges and damages our relationships with these animals, because I feel like the further away we get from each other, the less we’re going to know about what is happening to the environment. Animals tell us what’s going on in the world, ever before we are able to realize that. I think about this. I really wanted to make an art piece based off of the seabird die off that’s been happening in the waters off the coast of Alaska. There’s been a whole bunch of seabirds found in Nome, in Bristol Bay, the Aleutian chain in western Alaska. They were finding seabirds washed up, in a mass die off, they couldn’t really explain it completely. And I wanted to make a piece based off of that, because I felt like it was a warning that something’s going on.

Melissa Shaginoff: These are such profound statements. Tsin’aen. Can you expand a little bit more about the power of animals? I feel like there is something precious in the depiction of animals in Kivetoruk’s work. Can you expand on his handling of them?

Erin Gingrich: I was first introduced to this concept of being given things from the environment, and not just harvesting things, not owning them, but them being handed to you or presented to you. It is a feeling of respect and gratitude when this happens. And I think that that deep ingrained feeling of gratitude is where it probably started, that we have to be grateful for what we get to eat. My grandmother is Athabascan, and it is very much ingrained in our culture there that you have to be a good person, you have to do the right thing, you have to behave in the right way, or else animals will not present themselves to you. If you speak unkindly, if you even say certain animal’s names, you’re boasting and you will not have good luck. Even the tools that you use, if you do not take care of them or if you do not honor and respect the weapons you use to take animals, it can have negative effects on you and your entire family. And I think that that’s an important thing, too. What you do affects everyone in the community. 

Melissa Shaginoff: It is truly a sustainable way of being, right? The interdependence within this belief system. Beautiful, we believe the same in Chickaloon. 

Erin Gingrich: Yes, for instance, I really enjoy this image, because it doesn’t glorify the hunter and it doesn’t glorify the taking of the animal the way we often see in hunting nowadays. Western conceptions of hunting often for sport, display and almost objectify the animals as a trophy. When Native people hunt, we don’t do that, because we hunt to give. He’s doing this to feed his family, to feed his Elders, to feed himself, to clothe his family and his Elders, to give them seal skin, and to give them seal oil, and he doesn’t objectify the animal because there’s no need to. And in this image, the hunter is just doing what he’s doing, he’s a part of the land. 

I fully believe this important concept. This idea of the gift is the building of an active relationship with what you’re harvesting, an active relationship with the environment. I really think that our ancestors were renaissance people who were scientists, and artists, and inventors, and engineers all at the same time. And they had to create that balance. They were experts at what they did. They were experts in their environment, they were experts in their hunting practices, they’re experts in the technology that they developed for the Arctic and for hunting. You see even the poke he’s holding, when you scratch it on the ice, it mimics the sound of seals scratching on arctic ice, so that they could feel safe, and they could get closer to the seals.

Melissa Shaginoff: Amazing Erin, tsin’aen.