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Doll artist draws on her Alaskan roots

SANTA FE, N.M. — In “Shaman Talks,” a shaman and a hunter dance before a roaring fire, its smoky plumes configured from polar bear fur. The glowing coals beneath it are fossilized garnets; its spirit faces carved from fossilized whale’s tooth.

“They’re dancing to the game spirit for a plentiful spring harvest,” artist Glenda McKay said.

The figures in this traditional Athabascan scene stand no more than 6 inches tall.

McKay constructs miniature dolls showcasing the stories of her Ingalik-Athabascan culture. Born in Anchorage, she is the 2013 Ronald and Susan Dubin Native Artist Fellow at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. While she works in a SAR studio through Aug. 15, she’ll be making a doll scene she calls “Basket Maker.”


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“Her detail orientation is pretty incredible,” SAR program coordinator Elysia Poon said. “She hunts the animals she works with and she wastes no part of it. Her stitching is so fine and so detailed.”

McKay learned how to embroider and bead, trap, snare and tan hides, and gather fruit, bark, roots and plants for natural dyes from her mother, grandmother and aunts. Each doll takes between three and nine months to create. “Shaman Talks,” which she refers to as “my masterpiece,” took two years of painstaking work to the light of a kerosene lamp.

“That was before we had electricity,” she explained.

Black raven profiles —— her culture’s highest totem —— emblazon the figures’ tiny red and blue beaded aprons. The beads are about the size of a grain of sand. The figures’ sealskin parkas, complete with beaver ruffs, are too small for a Barbie doll.

McKay has been sewing and beading since she was a young girl. Her aunts inducted her into Athabascan survival skills by taking her from her home in Chugiak to Denali National Park, a six- to eight-hour drive away.

“They taught us how to survive,” she said, ” —— what plants to eat. We made snares for rabbits and squirrels.

“They wanted to make sure we could survive on the land in case we were invaded —— by the Russians.”

McKay’s grandmother taught her to make the large “tourist dolls” that supplemented her own income. But her granddaughter was drawn to the craftsmanship more than the monetary value.


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“Anything (my aunts) were making, I wanted to make,” she said.

Multicolored satin ribbons hang from a miniature clothesline inside McKay’s SAR studio. She has won 23 ribbons at Indian museum shows across the country. Her work is in the permanent collections of San Diego’s Museum of Man, the Autry National Center in Los Angeles and at Seattle’s Burke Museum.

McKay’s venture into the world of Lilliputian dolls began when her husband carved a miniature boat from cottonwood bark.

“He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if a little man could get in here?’ ” she said.

Her first doll was 1 inch high.

“I took my mother’s pattern for mukluks and I grafted it down,” she said.

A 3-inch-long Grateful Dead tin contains the miniature paper clothing patterns she designed herself, down to mouse-sized mittens.

An official from the Anchorage Museum told McKay her tribe used to make tiny dolls, but stopped the practice in the 1920s.

McKay began making the dolls in 2002. She stuffs the small bodies with the curled tendrils of baleen shavings after obtaining them from a friend.

“Women aren’t allowed to hunt the whale; it’s taboo,” she said. “Or the walrus.”

She hunts for seal, mink, marmot, beaver and deer, scraping and tanning the hide herself.

“When I’m hunting, I’m hunting for food,” she explained. “I’m not hunting for hides.”

She makes miniature bags and baskets from walrus stomach. Braided caribou sinew doubles for rope. Grouse feathers halo a parka hood.

McKay performs her exacting tasks through a jeweler’s Optivisor, a precision headband magnifier.

She made a series of miniature framed masks carved from fossilized ivory featuring the Mother of the Mosquito, an owl mask, a bear mask and a lunar mask. The moon spirit sports a cockeyed face with a lopsided grin.

The faces are about the size of a quarter.

“We believe everything has a spirit,” McKay said, “so you treat everyone with respect. Even a grain of sand has a spirit to it.”

Another series focuses on miniature tools —— harpoons, knives, spears, bows and arrows.

“The bows and arrows actually work,” McKay said. “They’ll shoot a toothpick across the room.” McKay’s handouts and bios make clear she hunts for her own hides and tans her own skins. In May, she faced her first “hide-haters” at the Native Treasures show at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. They wanted to know how she could kill defenseless animals.

“We use every single part” of the carcass, she explained. “I’ll even bury the bones for future artists.”

McKay keeps sketchbooks in both her purse and her truck for spontaneous ideas.

“I just hope I can live long enough to make everything I’ve sketched,” she said.