"The story behind the compelling black-and-white photograph that I worked from was told to me by Dorothea Lord and Mary Ann Beltz of Fairbanks, Alaska, granddaughters of Athabascan Tribal Chief Thomas. The Chief, his wife Martha and grandson Daniel Thomas are dressed in elaborate ceremonial clothing because they are attending a potlatch. Mary Ann Beltz knew that the location was along the Nenana River in Wood River, now Nenana, in Interior Alaska. The year was 1923, as her 'Uncle Dan' was thirteen years old at the time and was born in 1910. Chief Thomas was holding the potlatch in memorial to his children who had died of whooping cough.
Many diseases were transmitted by white settlers, an effect that was worsened by the 1867 Treaty of Cession. The treaty had increased encroachment of white settlers on Chief Thomas’ people’s land, and actually set into law the denial of rights, stating that 'inhabitants of Alaska, both Russians and Americans, have enjoyments of all rights, with the exception of uncivilized natives.'
My painting illustrates the hardship and unfair treaties endured by Alaska Natives. It also demonstrates resiliency and how culture and tradition provide beauty, dignity and identity. This is expressed in the Chief’s family’s exquisitely beaded regalia of moose hide and beaver trim. Today the arts of beadwork and fur-sewing are widely practiced by Alaska Natives. The potlatch ceremony today is much the same as in 1923 with gifts given by hosts to guests, and traditional food, dance, song, drumming, and stories enjoyed. My painting signifies that Alaska Natives today are survivors and that their culture and art, passed down from generation to generation, flourishes to this day.
Cann, C.F., photographer. 'Chief Thomas and Wife.' Photograph. 1923. Historical Photograph Collection, Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks, UAF-1968-12-9."
- Karen Austen
Karen Austen grew up in Southern California and moved to Fairbanks, Alaska in 1991. While reluctant to leave the San Francisco art world, she happily found Fairbanks to be a supportive community of artists and art lovers. Austen began teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks while earning a Masters Degree of Fine Art. For the past 25 years, Austen has worked from her downtown studio painting portraits of Fairbanks families, including pets. Currently, she is painting portraits of Alaskan wildlife. She is also bringing black and white historic photographs to life through brushstrokes and color.