After-school workshops in New Stuyahok use art to heal

Danielle Larsgaard, a commercial fisherman and domestic violence counsellor, recently embarked on a new venture: a traveling art studio, called Aliiraq Arts. She aims to run workshops on how people can use art to process emotions and deal with trauma.

“Bridging the gap between modern art and bringing back traditional art, our minds, our bodies, our hands, our souls,” explained Larsgaard. “We heal better when we practice our cultural ways of life, our traditional ways of life.”

She brought her studio to New Stuyahok in the last week of April as part of AmeriCorps’ Resilient Alaska Youth after-school program, which partners with tribes, schools and nonprofits in the rural communities across the state to support youth activities. The program has partnered with the New Stuyahok Traditional Council to have Larsgaard lead the art workshops.

Larsgaard teaches a traditional drum-making class, where students make sixteen-sided, 15-inch instruments. She also organizes an art therapy painting evening with the parents.

Mathias Suskuk from the Traditional Council said at least 22 children attended the workshop – so many that a few had to work on the project as a team.

“We started out making drums,” he said. “We sanded the part of the drum, the circle, to make it smooth for the deerskin.” This deerskin will eventually stretch over the drum hoop. “And then while it’s drying, we’ll probably paint,” he said.

For Larsgaard, these are not just artistic projects; she wants to bridge the generational gap created by boarding schools and other historical traumas.

“A lot of generations haven’t learned how to save grass, or how to fetch hides and stretch them and make drums and rain gear and stuff like that,” she said. “So with this generational gap, I’m filling it in by teaching these traditional classes for people who didn’t have an apa or ama to go with them and teach them these things, or mom and dad to teach them how to live from the earth or how to live off the water.”

The program’s community development manager, Liza Krauszer, said these workshops are part of AmeriCorps’ mission to meet the long-term needs of the community.

“The goal of our program is to connect with culture, community and environment,” she said. “So this special project, with these artists traveling to the communities, really ties into that goal of building that connection with the culture.” She said it also builds connections between young people and the wider community.

Larsgaard and musician Ossie Aassanaaq Kairaiuak, from the band Pamyua, traveled to six communities to lead workshops this spring.

“The purpose of these classes is to teach these traditional values, these traditional artistic skills and how to use our hands, minds, bodies and souls to heal,” Laarsgaard said.

New Stuyahok workshops are not limited to children in the after-school program; the whole community can get involved.

“We invite Elders to come and share their stories,” Larsgaard said. At the end of the workshop, parents can find out what their children have done in the workshop. Larsgaard said parents can also listen to children play drums, sing traditional songs and dance together.

The Resilient Alaska Youth program also worked with the communities of Kokhanok, Ketchikan, Nanwalek, St. Michael and Chevak this spring. It will open applications for new community partners in May. To learn more about how to participate, visit the website: https://ruralcap.org/client-services/health-well-being/resilient-alaska-youth-ray.

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