Mothers and daughters create Yup’ik dolls together

Nita Yurrliq Rearden, originally of Kotlik, taught a workshop on Yup'ik dollmaking as a way to teach language, culture, and traditional values to sewer of all ages. photo by Kelly Lincoln

by K.J. Lincoln

When an adult and a child work together as a team, it creates more than just memories – it encourages communication, builds language skills, and teaches and reinforces traditional values and culture. These are some of the things that Nita Yurrliq Rearden bases her teaching upon when visiting communities to lead her dollmaking workshops.
This past week, several mother and daughter teams worked together in Rearden’s class. The three-day workshop was sponsored by the Kuskowim Campus and it was full with a long waiting list.
Rearden has been a lifelong educator and has retired from teaching and is originally from Kotlik. She is a board member with the Alaska Arts Education Consortium. When she would visit schools as part of her work, she noticed that something was missing.
“When I traveled to the villages students did only pencil drawing, coloring with crayons, and painting. That was called art. They were being taught about Michaelangelo and Van Gogh, but that had no meaning to them or to me,” she told the class on opening day. “What is it that our kids need? I realized our kids need cultural art.”
With those thoughts in mind she developed a Yup’ik dollmaking curriculum with the Lower Kuskokwim School District that would help teach students about traditional cultural values.
“You can do it with kids,” she said about sewing cloth dolls. “It may seem hard but it is not.”
She taught her first adult/child partnered class in Igiugig back in December. She was invited to teach a class in Bethel so she did – with one exception: kids have to be part of the class.
When you teach a child how to make dolls, that value and knowledge become instilled into their minds, said Rearden. After taking the class they have the knowledge of how to sew dolls and they become sewers. First with cloth, then with furs and skin. Today, you will see expert dollmakers at craft shows and bazaars – and they are all adults and elders. This class helps the next generation of dollmakers to develop and keep the tradition alive.
“When I was a little girl, I had one doll,” said Rearden. She said her grandmother taught her the art of sewing while teaching useful lessons. One of those lessons was how to sew tiny stitches. Another tradition was to put away all the dolls when the first snow fell. They would be put away in the attic for the entire winter until the first geese arrived. Then they would be able to take out their dolls and play with them again.
During the winter months, the girls would be taught how to sew. They would sew garments and other items for their dolls. Later on, they would use their sewing skills to sew clothing for people.
With the dolls, children were taught how to care for and be responsible for their belongings, they learned kinship roles, they modeled how families work together, how hard work builds self-esteem, and learned how humor plays a role in family relationships.
All these were taught in Rearden’s doll workshop. Sometimes she would have the class take a break to learn a song and an Eskimo dance that went with a story. During one break she read a story, “Berry Magic”, which inspired her to create a doll dressed all in blueberries. The blueberry doll was with her in class as one of her examples. She also brought an elder woman doll with white hair, a young woman doll, an Eskimo dancer, and during quiet class time she worked on an elder man doll.
Today, Rearden’s doll collection has grown. She has many dolls representing the different cultures of Alaska.
11 year old Arianna Samson said that she had fun taking the doll workshop. She said that she will make more dolls. Her very first doll she will give to her grandma as a gift. It has a pretty green qaspeq.
“Thank you Nita for teaching us how to make dolls,” she said.