Stories in Representation: First figurative sculpture of Dena’ina installed in Anchorage

When Anchorage’s new civic and convention center opened 10 years ago in 2008, many living in Anchorage and broader Alaska learned a new word: Dena’ina. 

When a shopping commons was built near Muldoon a couple of years later, Alaskans learned another word: Tikahtnu.

When Anchorage residents think of iconic sculptures in and representing Anchorage, a couple may come to mind: Captain Cook and Balto. When we think of lasting markers such as memorials, sculptures, and public art, we rely and depend on them to tell the story of the people who live there. The Native peoples of the Dgheyaytnu (Anchorage) and the surrounding area continue to live on their homelands, but with few visual points of representation to inform the broader Anchorage community of the history, and future, of the land. However, due to Dena’ina-led initiatives, this is changing.

And this past weekend, the first figurative image of the Dena’ina and representing the indigenous peoples of the Anchorage was installed in Ship Creek, almost 100 years after the city of Anchorage was incorporated. 


Soldotna Artist Joel Isaak, who is Dena’ina, wrought the bronze statue to represent a well known Dena’ina community member, Grandma Olga Nicolai Ezi from the Tyone Lake, and Copper River regions. Born in 1875, she was the matriarch of her family and was married to Simeon Ezi, a chief of the upper Cook Inlet, including Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley and was known as Cheda, or Grandmother, by the region.

The Native Village of Eklutna issued a public request for proposal; when Isaak applied, he was selected to create the sculptures.

When asked what this sculpture means for the Dena’ina people, Isaak said, “She is wearing customary Dena’ina regalia with fish skin boots.  I wanted to cloth her in the regalia of our people as way to honor her. Clothing customs were forcibly removed from us a Dena’ina people. It carried our clan information and was our fine art.  When schools and commerce came in it stopped the generational transfer of knowledge about the meaning behind our porcupine quill work. Dena’ina have a unique way of weaving quills that no other people group used.  The weaving style combined with cut and pattern of the dress convey that she is Dena’ina. Dena’ina is a matriarchal society so it is fitting that a strong Dena’ina woman be chosen to represent our people.”

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Also notably, the representation of Grandma Olga is facing North, with her back turned to Captain Cook, the image of which has grown as an Anchorage icon. Representation is key especially in a growing city with residents settling from all over the world, because visual images are signals to new community members what, and who, is important, including what gets told regarding narratives, histories, perspectives, and futures. are signals to new community members what, and who, is important, including what gets told regarding narratives, histories, perspectives, and futures.

As Isaak shares, Dena’ina were once referred to as invisible people. Our homeland houses the densest population in the state of Alaska.  Anchorage blankets our village sites and customary places. Today there are representations of colonial expansion in public places in Anchorage. For example Captain Cook statues, place names, and building/business names.  The history of Anchorage and the “Cook Inlet” area seems to have only represented colonization. By representing Dena’ina people in our homeland accurately represented with proper clothing, cultural context, and facial features installations like this stand up to the false damaging idea that the indigenous people of Alaska do not exist.  We are still her living our life ways as we have for thousands of years.”

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“Dena’ina people and all Native peoples of Alaska never stopped living our customary life way.  After over a 150 years of forced assimilation, acts of genocide, epidemics, and an education system bent on eradicating who are as human beings we are still here. It is not for others to represent who we are or us to meet an idea of what an “Indian” is.  We are not breeding stock with blood quantum charts managed by an outside government body. We are living people with an immense amount of strength and are not invisible, respect who we are, and respect our women.”

The sculpture is located on Small Boat Launch Road, a public access road in Ship Creek. Everyone who lives in the Anchorage is encouraged to make a trip to visit Grandma Olga. Interpretation signs are forthcoming to narrate the work.

Joel received his BFA from UAF in sculpture and the first family fish he has sculpted is installed in Kenai at the Kenaitze Indian Tribes Dena’ina Wellness Center. To learn more about Joel Isaak and his work, visit: https://joelisaak.com/

To learn more about Grandma Olga, visit: https://cf.denali.gov/Data/attachments/Family%20Matters-5-2-2018.pdf

Photos: Cordelia Qiġñaaq. Posted: November 21 by Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie. Chin’an to Joel Isaak for sharing about the piece.

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