Karluk, Kodiak Island, date unknown.
“These masks are danced together.
They share a dance.”¹
Sarah Biscarra Dilley
Agyasinaq cimirtaanisqaq; łaqšimu tsequsu
[The big star that never changes.]²
Like a mask, Christopher Ando’s 2015 Cungagnaq Does a Wall Dance uses contemporaneous narratives in method, material, and meaning. A meticulously carved triptych of a Wikipedia page referencing Sugpiaq [an Indigenous person from Kodiak Island] turned Russian Orthodox saint “St. Peter the Aleut,” the artwork incorporates found wood, an extension of the tidally culled driftwood often used by Ando’s relatives on Kodiak Island, and the visible presence of the hand in each gouged grain, which is then smoothed by rich pigment or contrasted against it. Reflecting on his work, Ando shares:
Even though the carving is a wall fixture, it acts like a mask by creating a composite out of the histories that made the Alutiiq Cungagnaq into a Russian Orthodox Saint while in San Francisco. It is also a physical reference to a particular space on the internet during the time that I accessed it to create the piece. The space won’t be there forever but the action of carving contemporary cosmologies to tell a story alongside the many stories of Native peers is one of many ways our masks work.³
After the close of the exhibition the piece was made for (Visions into Infinite Archives), the three panels were returned to significant places.⁴
One was left for the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay, near the mission where Cungagnaq was reportedly murdered.
One was placed in the high cliffs beyond the reach of Fort Ross, a Russian settlement in Kashaya Pomo homelands, where he was captured.
And one was left for the tides at the beach below its salt-faded redwood enclosure, where heavy sands are dotted with red abalone shells, like the heavens they mirror.
I accompanied Ando as he placed the final two panels to rest. It was a furious drive along the winding coastline on the day of the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, just hours before he had to be on a flight to Siena, Italy, to start an apprenticeship learning stained-glass restoration. Ando and I share a heightened awareness of the symbolic, absurd, and, often, serendipitous but, this day had a particularly strange sense of urgency and weight. We bounded up the coast along stretches of road that made me carsick, even in the driver’s seat, and arrived at Fort Ross through a haze of fog to a single gnarled apple tree at the fort’s centre. Placing (or fixing) the panels had to be quick work, as is often the case for Indigenous peoples wanting to attend to their things without interference, working long stories at the margins of imposing or ominous ones. But the final panel, the one bearing Cungagnaq’s image, was never allowed to take saltwater paths. As it was being placed, a long line of children, dressed as nineteenth-century Russian settlers in miniature, chattered and sang on a path to the graveyard. We took that as a sign to leave – and quickly. A fort is a monument to violence.
Angitqurtuci asirluci; tstʸu pʔitutʸinaha
[It’s good you came back.]⁵
Years later, in the ways that stories often unravel like tides work in arcs, I met an Unangax̂ advisor at Fort Ross through a nurturing conversation on shared saltwater with a Dena’ina mentor. Through passing discussion on misrepresentation and monuments, it became clear that, on that November morning in 2016, Ando’s intention to return Cungagnaq’s story to the sea was transfigured by the religious fervour of a former tour guide into an apparition of the Russian Orthodox saint. Described as “primitive,” despite the hyperlinks carefully carved beneath the gold-leafed portrait, the final panel had been removed from the tides and enclosed within a Russian Orthodox convent near Nilektsonoma [Calistoga, California]. There it is enshrined in the nave of the church, heavy fabrics draped over the open tabs and bookmarks of the web browser – a holy assumption, indeed.
Like the obsessive collecting and enclosure that policies such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) gesture (however unevenly) towards repairing, we can understand the liminal (re)performance of Cungagnaq’s capture first by Russian settlers following otter pelts through kelp forests and then by Catholic missionaries bent on the bottomless hunger of conversion in this story. Objectification, and its close cousin, possession, creates cosmologies of fragmentation through a practice of shattering; imagining disconnect between the life of our things and our peoples, and writing settlement’s own story of loss and disarray over our own. Our relatives in collections are alive and waiting to be held, danced, or put to rest. Even in the devastation of attempted erasure or enclosure, we teach through the simple power of existing in complexity and relation. This is the generosity of our ways of being as saltwater people, as peoples of place, as people whose stories make the world(s). Maybe Cungagnaq is still doing a wall dance because the story, and its teaching, is in unfolding motion.
Tanqigyaturtuq; yatqmapsɨ tsqinapa
[The sun is rising.]⁶
“[Our masks] all have a story in themselves that play with the stories of other masks–when danced, they all come together, and the stories blend to make another living story.”⁷
¹ Sven D. Haakanson and Amy F. Steffian, eds., “Table 1. Mask Texts Available in Pinart’s Kodiak Field Journal,” Giinaquq Like a Face: Sugpiaq Masks of the Kodiak Archipelago (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2009), 178.
² Alutiiq/Sugpiaq language sourced from Alas'kaam Flagaa [Alaska Flag Song], Native Village of Afognak / Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak, alutiiqlanguage.org/songs (accessed 25 October 2022).
³ Christopher Ando, interview with the author, 12 January 2019.
⁴ Visions into Infinite Archives, SOMArts Cultural Center, curated by Black Salt Collective , 2016.
⁵ Alutiiq/Sugpiaq language sourced from Alutiiq Museum Bulletin, special edition (Spring 2008)..
⁶ Alutiiq/Sugpiaq language sourced from Alutiiq Word of the Week: March 9, 2013, Alutiiq Museum, https://alutiiqmuseum.org/collection/index.php/Detail/word/186 (accessed 25 October 2022.)
⁷ Ando, interview with the author, 2019.
Christopher Ando, Cungagnaq Does a Wall Dance, mixed media triptych, 2015.
Sarah Biscarra Dilley, Christopher/Cungagnaq, detail of Instax double exposure, 2016, image courtesy of author.
Cungagnaq Does a Wall Dance is reproduced with permission of the artist Christopher Ando.
© 2022 Sarah Biscarra Dilley. Text and image may not be used without permission of UQ Art Museum, the artist or the author. Images courtesy Sarah Biscarra Dilley.
Sarah Biscarra Dilley
(yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini [Northern Chumash]) is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and educator currently residing in the ahupuaʻa o Makuʻu, Hawaiʻi Island. Their practice is grounded in collaboration across experiences, communities, and place. Relating land and beings throughout nitspu tiłhin ktitʸu and places joined by shared water, their written and visual texts connect extractive industries, absent treaties, and enclosure to emphasize movement, relational landscapes and embodied sovereignties. While much of their foundations are shaped the worlds in and around us, they are a PhD Candidate in Native American Studies at UC Davis and serve on the University of California Systemwide NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) Implementation and Oversight Committee.