wëk’èjì’ihthit | imagine
birds eye view of the Alaska Native Health Campus


Allison Akootchook Warden carries Iñupiaq culture forward in unconventional ways
By Richard Perry (Yup’ik/Athabascan) and Dawn Biddison

llison Akootchook Warden is an interdisciplinary Iñupiaq artist born in Fairbanks, Alaska, with families ties to the Native village of Kaktovik. Her work is focused on performance, rap, installation and poetry. Akootchook found her calling to become an artist at a young age: “As a young Iñupiaq, I saw the impacts of the rapid colonization of my traditional homelands and how they manifested as disease in myself and also my family. I heard stories of my great-great grandfather and also my great-great grandmother, how they would utilize traditional methods to heal their communities collectively, and at a young age, I began to look towards the arts as a vehicle for possible neo-traditional community healing methods. My grandmother was known for getting audiences to laugh, and at a young age she recognized my talent in the performing arts and encouraged me to carry our Iñupiaq culture forward in unconventional ways.”

Among her recent work is the multimedia installation and two-month performance piece Unipkaaġusiksuġuvik (the place of the future/ancient), held at the Anchorage Museum in 2016. Akootchook created a futuristic version of a qargi (ceremonial and community house in the Iñupiaq language) and led events with audience participation. She described it a space “where the hyper-future meets the super-ancient, a liminal space where myths are born and the Eagle Mother is honored with ceremony and dance.”

Akootchook performing
Akootchook performing at the Anchorage Museum, 2016.

photo by MICHAEL CONTI, courtesy of ALLISON WARDEN.

Akootchook dressed as the ancestor from the future
Akootchook as the Ancestor from the Future, Djerassi Artistic Residency, 2017.
In 2017 she debuted siku/siku at the first Arctic Arts Summit in Harstad, Norway. Siku is one of the words for ice in Iñupiaq, and it has been used as slang for methamphetamine, part of the devastating drug misuse problems in the Arctic. According to the artist’s website, “the performance serves to illustrate the impact of the rapid colonization of her traditional homelands and how one life can be very different, just through a few different choices, circumstances and reactions an individual has towards life’s challenges, especially systemic barriers, including racism.”

Akootchook shared that from a young age the people in her life—teachers, family and others around her—supported and inspired her in exploring the arts. One person was the non-Native artist Claire Fejes. “She was [already] pretty famous as an artist and my babysitter,” Akootchook said. “She soon recognized I was an artist, encouraged me, and even gave me a painting as a child. I remember her acknowledging that she saw something in me that reminded her of what she did in her early years.”


One approach Akootchook utilizes in her work is finding intersectionality within a project as a way to explore issues and to educate people. She uses an analytical approach to understanding commonalities and differences between Alaska Native and non-Native experiences to understand aspects of people’s social and political identities. “There are ways to communicate culture in a way that doesn’t need to be linear or logical,” Akootchook said. “I’m a performer, so I’ve had to put my body on the line and consider what I want to say and be present, face to face with the people. I love poetry because I can write it in quiet privacy in a place, setting, and time of my choosing.”

Regarding her performance art, Akootchook shared, “I have to say from my personal experience, I was seeking to stretch the content of what is available for Alaska Native artists. I appreciate artists like James Luna.” Luna (1950-2018) was a Puyukitchum/Ipai/Mexican-American Indian performance artist, photographer and multimedia installation artist. His work is well known for challenging the status quo within conventional museum exhibitions and how they present Native Americans.


Akootchook is committed to becoming fluent in and helping revitalize her Iñupiaq language, and to bringing her language into her art. In a 2019 interview with Katherine Brewer Ball, Akootchook said that “in my dreams I have Ancestors who are encouraging me and talking to me, so I feel like it’s my responsibility, and I love putting it in my art. Being an Indigenous artist, we have cultural responsibilities… Bringing the language forward is both a gift and a responsibility. There is so much wisdom in the language. So much of our worldview is the language, our Iñupiat way of seeing the world, and it doesn’t translate into English.”
“So much of our worldview is the language, our Iñupiat way of seeing the world…”
Akootchook’s work has been recognized and supported through fellowships in Alaska and nationally. In 2018, she received a Rasmuson Individual Artist Fellowship in the field of New Genre, which supported her travel to Abu Dhabi to begin research for Everybody Will Be a Millionaire, a collaboration with Iñupiaq photographer Brian Adams that will debut in 2025. In the same year, she was awarded a Native Arts and Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellowship in the field of music. In 2019, she was awarded the prestigious United States Artist Fellowship. Currently Akootchook is working on her poetry and a hip-hop album that is expected to be released before December.
Richard Perry (Yup’ik/Athabascan) is a writer, playwright, and regular contributor to First Alaskans. Dawn Biddison is the Museum Specialist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. This article was originally published by Arctic Arts Summit at arcticartssummit.ca