Luce Fellow Spotlight: Hanna Sholl

Among the first cohort of Luce Indigenous Knowledge fellows, Hanna Sholl (Sugpiaq/Alutiiq) is an artist, educator, and culture bearer who merges traditional and modern-day Alutiiq art. As an educator and culture bearer, Sholl works with tribal youth and adults, using art to preserve and share knowledge of Alutiiq history and legends. “Through art, I want to remind our people that our ancestors were strong and independent.” says Sholl.

In 2020, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) in partnership with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) awarded ten $50,000 fellowships to support Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship is a 12-month, self-directed enrichment program that provides fellows with the funding and connections necessary to maximize their potential and spark significant innovation and transformation in their communities.

Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow:

Hanna Sholl, Alaska

Hanna Sholl (Sugpiaq/ Alutiiq) is among the first cohort of Luce Indigenous Knowledge fellows. Sholl is an artist, educator, and culture bearer who merges traditional and modern-day Alutiiq art. As an artist, she primarily works in the following mediums: skin sewing, clay, acrylic paint, woodcarving, weaving, beading, mixed media, and photography.

As an educator and culture bearer, Sholl works with tribal youth and adults, using art to preserve and share knowledge of Alutiiq history and legends. “Through art, I want to remind our people that our ancestors were strong and independent,” says Sholl. “This legacy of strength and independence is ours to remember and ours to embrace!”

Over the past decade, Sholl has primarily worked out of her kitchen. The Luce Indigenous Fellowship allowed her to create a space for and purchase materials to work on three ongoing art collections and start a fourth art collection. Together, these four art collections honor and celebrate ancestral Alutiiq knowledge and stories as well as address present day issues relevant to Indigenous communities.

Sholl created this oil lamp to open up conversations and normalize discussions about mental health

“The fellowship didn’t just allow me to buy materials and equipment,” notes Sholl. “In 2020, it also encouraged me to enter into the political realm of art and to ask: ‘How do we use art to make real changes? How do we use art to make a bigger impact in our communities?’”

To help address these questions, Sholl ran and was elected the Alutiiq Tribal Council during the fellowship period. Additionally, she was invited to join the Alutiiq Heritage Foundation Board of Directors. She observes that this “fellowship was a real game changer” that provided her with the confidence and opportunities to take a more active leadership role in her tribal community.

Community Background and Impact

Hanna Sholl, Alutiiq name Agasuuq, was born in Kodiak, Alaska, to Sophie Frets and Bruce Burns. Her maternal grandparents were Walt and Edna Hansen. She says she introduces herself in this way to honor her ancestry, homelands, and relationships, each of which informs her art.

The city of Kodiak sits on Kodiak Island, an archipelago or group of islands located on the southern coast of Alaska. Kodiak is the traditional homelands of the Alutiiq or Sugpiaq people. In 1763, Russian fur traders arrived on Kodiak Island, along with other explorers, missionaries, and settlers who have had a devastating impact on Alutiiq culture and language.

Sholl wearing a bird mask she created with her husband Jonathan Gage Sholl

For example, Russian and Sloviak languages spread quickly across Kodiak Island. Today, in the Kodiak area there are less than 30 people fluent in the Alutiiq language. Despite these linguistic losses, Alutiiq people still have a rich artistic tradition that has helped them reclaim and revitalize their oral traditions. Sholl uses her artwork to increase knowledge of and access to these stories.

Although Sholl was born on Kodiak Island, she was raised primarily in “the lower 48,” eventually returning to Kodiak after turning 18. According to Sholl, art allowed her to reconnect with her culture and address some of the insecurities she felt growing in an urban area away from her ancestral homelands.

“After I moved back to Kodiak, I did not feel worthy as an Alutiiq person who was raised elsewhere,” says Sholl.  “Fortunately, in 2011 I was invited to join the Kodiak Alutiiq dancers, an experience that was transformational. I found a sense of self-worth in singing and dancing, and I now had a purpose and a passion — I wanted to share this feeling of self-worth with others.”

Today, Sholl is highly regarded within Alutiiq communities as a key leader and culture bearer in the Alutiiq revitalization movement. She regularly hosts workshops and classroom demonstration on weaving, skin sewing, and mask carving. Additionally, she helped develop materials for the Alutiiq language nest, school district and served as a cultural artist and dancer at annual culture camps.

Merging Contemporary and Traditional Art Methods

“My artwork, which honors the resistance and creativity of my ancestors, combines present day with traditional methods,” says Sholl.  During the fellowship, she worked on four collections to preserve and perpetuate knowledge of Alutiiq history and legends.

Initially, Sholl planned to create an in-person exhibit for an art gallery or museum. However, COVID-19 restrictions forced her to re-think her plans and create a virtual exhibit. Instead, Sholl created a highly innovative, interactive website to showcase and engage with her beautiful and inspiring work.

All four of Sholl’s collections can be found online at Fine Arts by Hannah Sholl. These four collections include: Present Time Storytelling and Indigenous Issues; Paying Respect; A Journey to Traditional, and a Collection of Murals. The first collection, Present Time Storytelling and Indigenous Issues, uses art to draw attention to contemporary issues facing Indigenous people.

Hand-woven Sugpiaq bird with beautiful jewels encasing portraits of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women from Alaska

For example, Sholl recently used the traditional Alutiiq practice of hand weaving to spotlight the ongoing epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) across the country. For this piece, she hand wove a traditional Sugpiaq bird in red and black to honor MMIW in Alaska. The red bird includes a black handprint on its back, symbolizing a call to action for MMIW across the country.

Sholl made the birds’ tail into small jewels encased with pictures of MMIW from her home state.  She notes that Alutiiq people traditionally believe that Sugpiaq birds carry messages to their ancestors. As part of the exhibit, Sholl poignantly writes: “Each bead is a prayer for a missing sister, each portrait a memory of daughter who was taken from this world too soon.

According to Sholl, all of her collections merge traditional and modern day Alutiiq art practices. The second collection, Paying Respect, is not for profit; it is an educational exhibit. As part of this collection, Sholl recreates ancestral pieces with the purpose of studying them to learn traditional practices that she can then impart to younger generations through hands-on, experiential learning activities.

Sholl observes that this collection “relies heavily on the traditional Alutiiq calendar, which lets [her] know when it is time to properly harvest materials.” Although Sholl continued to build this collection during the fellowship period, she was unable to actually engage with students during this time because of the pandemic. She hopes to resume these activities in the fall.

Sholl’s final collection, A Journey to Traditional, reflects and embodies her own cultural journey. She describes this personal collection as a “journey to discover what it means to be a traditional Sugpiaq artists, living and creating in present day.” As part of this collection, she recreated regalia adorned with Alutiiq stories and designs. She wishes to share this journey with other Sugpiaq/Alutiiq people.

“I am more than an artist, says Sholl. “I am choosing to walk like I have 3,000 ancestors walking beside me, guiding me with each brush stroke, with each stitch I make, each bead I thread and each blade of grass I weave. My goal is to foster a stronger, educated and empowered generation of Alutiiq people through art.”

Art as Cultural Healing

As a young woman, Sholl found strength and healing in Alutiiq culture and tradition. Her goal is to share that lesson with others in her community. She firmly believes that art has the power and potential to strengthen and heal Alutiiq people.

According to Sholl, the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship reiterated this lesson. As part of the fellowship, Sholl and the nine other fellows participated in a session on historical trauma and healing. She acknowledges that this session was emotionally intense because it reminded her how much her people and community lost due to the devastating effect of colonization.

However, Sholl observes that this session also inspired her and again helped her find healing through art collection. Following this session, Sholl wrote an epic poem recounting her homelands painful history, and their loss of culture and language. However, the poem does not simply focus on loss, but rather emphasizes the resilience and ingenuity of Alutiiq people.

Sholl is currently revising the poem into a formal manuscript that she will publish with art work and links to historical references about important settler colonial encounters on Kodiak Island. She hopes this poem will help inspire people from inside and outside her community to learn more about Alutiiq culture and history.

“It’s funny,” Sholl muses. “If it weren’t for the fellowship and this session healing, I never would have started this new project. Because of my own need for healing, this project could have a big impact on other people too.”

Words of Gratitude

Sholl is extremely grateful to First Nations Development Institute and the Henry Luce Foundation for this generous fellowship and for bringing these 10 Indigenous knowledge holders and makers together.

“Friendships were made that will last a lifetime,” says Sholl. “It has been incredible being a part of a cohort of like-minded people who are driven by their love for their culture and community.”

Like Sholl, many of the fellows agree that the power of the Lude Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship lies in bringing Indigenous people and communities together. Although each fellow possesses a different tribal background, and works in different parts of the country, they share similar questions and concerns about how to best support their communities.

“We might all work in different areas and be far apart physically,” says Sholl. “But now because of this fellowship, we are all connected. We will continue to reach out beyond this fellowship and collaborate together. I am so grateful to First Nations and Luce for this privilege and allowing us to continue our work.”