Inupiaq rapper AKU-MATU inhabits many forms when onstage. In some songs she raps as a polar bear; in others, a caribou or a whale. In one rap, she embodies “an ancestor from the future.”
Offstage, she’s Allison Akootchook Warden, an environmental activist who employs song, dance, theatre, performance art and social media to spread her message of caring for land and tradition, while stretching notions of what it means to be Inuit beyond stereotypes about igloos and dogsleds.
"My rap name is AKU-MATU," says Allison Akootchook Warden, who is Inupiaq and lives in Anchorage, Alaska. She was named one of the 50 environmental activists to watch for by Grist magazine in 2016. I rap as a polar bear, caribou, a whale, an ancestor from the future. I have a song about generational trauma called, ‘My Mom’s Song.’ We have 22 songs. It's a lot, but for the most part its environmentally focused."
Warden, whose whimsically-costumed alter-egos are a fixture on the Anchorage arts scene, is an unapologetic advocate of weirdness, but not for its own sake.
“I do a lot of ‘out-there’ things, but I am still Inuit. The funny thing about our culture is that everyone allows everyone to be Inuit in their own way. Warden’s 2016 installation at the Anchorage Museum interpreted a traditional Inupiaq ceremonial house as a space “where the hyper-future meets the super-ancient.” A sign near the entrance put it another way: A place to decolonize your spirit. Inside, visitors discovered an array of native Alaskan artifacts alongside art of Warden’s making. Inupiaq photographer Brian Adams trained his lens on Warden, along with scores of other Alaskan Inuit subjects, for his 2017 book, I Am Inuit (the Inupiaq are one of several Indigenous groups living in coastal regions of the Arctic, including parts of Russia, Canada and Greenland, that comprise the larger Inuit culture). The faces of numerous hunters, whalers and village elders peer from the pages of Adams’ book, along with a policeman, sled maker, heavy metal guitarist and a group of naked men relaxing in a plywood steamhouse.
Outside of the Arctic, stories of the Inuit have long been told mostly by non-Inuit, often resulting in simplistic tropes, if not outright racism. It’s a dynamic that Adams intends to upend.
“Who is telling the story is really important to me,” says Adams. “I wanted everyone to tell their own story without any middlemen explaining anything.”
The issue is not limited to chroniclers of the Inuit, of course. Many racial and ethnic communities have historically lacked a platform to tell their own stories.
Adams is a member of Diversify Photo, an international collective of photographers working to connect editors with photographers from the countries being highlighted in their publications. And earlier this year Adams helped launch Natives Photograph, a database of Indigenous photographers from across North America.
Adams and Warden will soon embark on a multimedia project titled Everybody Will Be a Millionaire!, a commentary on the false hope once held in some Inuit communities that fossil fuel exploration would bring immense wealth to the region. Kaktovik, the community where Warden’s ancestors come from, sits in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge not far from Prudhoe Bay, site of the largest oil field in North America.
Adams, 33, and Warden, 45, grew up fully immersed in Western culture, but are planting a foot firmly in their traditional culture, inventing new narratives in the process.
When Adams was born his family lived in Kivalina, a tiny Inupiaq village on the Chukchi Sea, though he grew up in an Anchorage suburb. I ask him about the differences between his generation’s ideas of what it means to be Inuit versus the previous.
“My father left home when he was 13 to go to boarding school in Kansas — they beat the language and the culture out of that whole generation,” he says. “Even when I first started traveling to [native] villages more than a decade ago there wasn’t that pride within the youth that I see now. There is a reclaiming happening, where people are like, ‘okay, I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am, it’s really cool what we’re doing, it’s really cool where we come from’.”
Media portrayals of Inuit life are typically tragic: the loss of sea ice; starving polar bears; epidemics of poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide, leavingoutsiders with a lopsided, monolithic view of Indigenous Arctic communities.
Elizabeth Niiqsik Ferguson, 24, the youth representative for the Alaska chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, says social media has given young Inuit a platform to transmit positive images of Inuit life that resist the homogenizing gaze of legacy media. She sometimes livestreams her hunting, fishing and berry-picking excursions from her hometown of Kotzebue, Alaska.
“I feel proud to share that on social media,” says Ferguson, a former Miss Arctic Circle (it’s a cultural celebration, she says, not a beauty pageant) who once traveled to the White House to meet Michelle Obama. “Sure, it's two different worlds. But where's the common ground? Where's the middle of that?”
Ferguson notes that broadband connectivity remains a pressing issue in the Arctic — her live feed cuts out by the time she’s a half-mile from town. While she advocates for infrastructure, digital and otherwiseshe’s not willing to sacrifice that which her community already holds precious. “Just because we want to develop doesn’t mean that we are giving up our subsistence, our berry picking, our land.”
The social media era has by no means eclipsed ancient forms of transmitting Inuit culture.
At the age of 12, Isaiah Patkutaq McKenzie began learning traditional Inuit songs and dances from older relatives. In his early teen years, songs began coming to him in his dreams; sometimes an invisible presence sings them into his right ear while he’s awake. McKenzie has traveled to Inuit communities all over Alaska to share his songs and is part of a troupe called the Kisaġvigmiut Traditional Dancers, which he founded with Allison Warden, his cousin.
McKenzie’s songs may be new, but they are considered “traditional,” just the same.
“A long time ago — not that long ago, actually — our elders would compose new songs. When they travelled from one region to another they would gift their songs to other communities,” says McKenzie, now 19. “Some people get a little uncomfortable with me telling them that a song came from a dream. They think that I am a shaman. I freak a lot of people out.”
Born in Utqiaġvik (previously known as Barrow, Alaska) and now based in Anchorage, McKenzie says his repertoire of traditional songs numbers 300 to 400. They always come in his native language, in which he is not fluent. Sometimes he has to ask his mother to translate the meaning upon waking from a dream.
Warden hopes that promoting stories like those of McKenzie and Adams will begin to bring balance and nuance to perceptions of the Inuit.
Brian Adams’ work, she says, is “so important because he is simply showing people as they are, in all of their everythingness, without judgment. And without a big convoluted story as a mechanism for some kind of big social change. It’s just who we are right now in 2018, and that’s okay.”
Even Inuit elders participate in the smashing of stereotypes, says Warden. She tells me how an older woman she cares for has taken an interest in Fortnite, the popular video game, which Warden often plays. “She wants the Fortnite characters to do Inupiaq dances and wear Inupiaq clothing. The elders are not afraid of seeing new ways of our culture being perpetuated through time.”
Warden’s 70-year old mother, a retired Presbyterian minister, recently had her chin tattooed in a traditional Inuit style once demonized by missionaries. “My mom sees my rapping as traditional,” she says. “She doesn’t see it as anything outside of the culture, she sees it as the culture. It doesn’t look the same as the fire from 200 years ago, but that fire is still going.”