Two Spirit Yup’ik Finds Healing Through Art

Project 562 has provided space to unpack and discover Indigenous identity. We’ve become familiar with the recurring theme of reconnection, the “coming home” story that so many of us carry. Home both in the sense of the physical spaces we inhabit- our towns, our regions, our waters, our place based identity- but also the intangible one inside of us.

How do our people find their way home? What does that journey look like?

For Yupik and Inupiaq artist Drew Michael, the journey began at 14.

Drew and his twin brother were adopted and raised alongside a dozen other adopted siblings by two non-Native parents in Eagle River, Alaska. As a young person Drew felt disconnected from his Yup’ik and Inupiaq identity until he discovered Yup’ik mask making.

Originally, Yup’ik masks were used for healing and to tell stories of things unseen. Now, Drew is reclaiming traditional Yup’ik mask making in his own journey to find balance and connection. Not only as an indigenous man, but also in his Two-Spirit identity.

Last month, Project 562 visited Drew in Anchorage, Alaska. With snow falling outside and hot coffee in hand, we were given a tour of his home and his most personally significant works.

Drew’s masks evoke feelings of balance, transformation, and spiritual awakening often focusing on revealing the inua or ‘fundamental spirit’. Drew explains that the inua is representative of the inner spirit and is depicted in Yup’ik art usually as a face within the body or throat of an animal. He plays with this traditional imagery while exploring his own identity, as seen in the self portrait What’s my Inua.

“I made this piece following a rather emotional reconciliation with my first boyfriend. I had had a dream of a woman, isolated on a concrete platform surrounded by towers and blown down fencing. The sky was grey with blue and purple lightning. Her lips were blue and she was screaming with no sound. I realized she was my soul, going through rebirth…I wanted to show the healing in this piece, not only the pain of the transformation, and that’s what these hands traditionally represent.”

What’s my Inua
October 2016
22 x 20 x 6 inches
Basswood, dyed caribou hair, poplar wood, screws,
copper nails, washers, brass plating, stain

“In this piece, I wanted to try and make it an accurate self portrait [hence the blue hair and wooden glasses - a look Drew was rocking at the time] but also include symbols that would represent the inner spirit. 
I use the triangle to do this, it’s a strong form. I open the mask up and reveal the spirit in the middle because I want to be vulnerable to myself and to the world.
I’m playing with the imagery. If you look at traditional masks, in the Yup’ik cultures you’ll see a face in the center of a bird or another animal and the face inside represents the inner spirit. And in this piece, the triangle represents that, the inua.”

We are all discovering what it means to be a “Native American” in 2018 and unpacking the varied nuance of that complicated identity.

Some of us had the opportunity to grow up on reservations where we were regularly surrounded by Native people, customs, and traditions. Some of us grew up in cities, where access to those knowledge systems may have been limited. Some of our families relocated to other continents. Some of us didn’t have access to ancestral knowledge even if we were surrounded by native people. And some, like Drew, were adopted or disconnected in some other way. Despite these challenges, we celebrate the creative ways our people have indigenized their lives. We’re grateful for Drew’s courage to take the steps necessary to forge his own way home and for sharing that story with us.

How do you encourage others to connect? How have you connected?