Creative business in rural Alaska
Holly Mititquq Nordlum
One of the first things most people notice when they meet Holly Mititquq Nordlum are the distinctive tattoos on her chin. Nordlum, an Iñupiaq from Kotzebue, is a graphic designer and artist in Anchorage who is successfully melding traditional art with contemporary ideas.
Art and Tradition
She opened her graphic arts studio, Naniq Design, in 2004 and specializes in work for Alaska Native corporations and events. “It’s kind of great for me,” she says. “I love Anchorage. It’s the biggest Native village in Alaska. Now, with the traditional tattooing that I do, and talking about it being part of who you are and your identity, I get to travel all over the state.”
“It’s kind of awesome that it’s taking off so well,” Nordlum says. “We’re tattooing people every day.”
“I started the program here in Alaska to revive the old techniques,” she says. She estimates that she or one of her trainees has tattooed hundreds of people, mostly women, around the state.
Nordlum has found a niche that taps into her cultural heritage and her love of art. Just as the Alaska Native regional and village corporations are reshaping the state’s economy, businesses owned by Alaska Natives are making a difference on a village and personal level. In many ways, the corporations help to pave the way for new businesses by providing educational and vocational scholarships, job training, mentorships, and, in some cases, direct funding.
Corporations are also investing in businesses within their regions, such as tourism destinations, hardware stores, and oilfield services. These businesses provide local jobs and enhance the local economy. In return, shareholders gain knowledge and experience and are better prepared to start their own businesses down the line.
Nordlum’s primary business is graphic design and artwork, but she’s captivated by the tradition behind the tattoos. While they serve as a marker in a woman’s life, the tattoos’ specific meanings are hard to describe, says Nordlum, who is working on a documentary.
“It’s a complicated answer,” she says. “Traditionally it meant one thing, which we’re still trying to recognize. In contemporary times, it’s about identity and standing up against the tone of the times, which we’re kind of fighting back with racial relations. It’s a step forward with our heads up for our identity as women in our culture.
“Sometimes I just say my great-grandmother had them and a thousand generations before her.”
Nordlum’s childhood was spent at her parents’ Iditarod sled dog kennel a few miles from Kotzebue. She went to boarding school at age fifteen and moved to Anchorage. For the past twenty years, she has embraced both her cultural roots and Anchorage’s urban lifestyle.
“I think living like that you just end up doing things more traditionally,” she says of growing up in rural Alaska. “You don’t call them traditional, you call it survival. You just make things work. I was lucky to grow up like that, but that’s not the lifestyle I wanted. It’s so much work and it’s so expensive.”
Creating Economic Opportunities
Life in rural Alaska is expensive, with little infrastructure, limited Internet access, high energy costs, and little to no access to banking services. But cultural and family ties are strong, and residents seek out ways to stay in the communities they’re from so they participate in the subsistence lifestyle. They often have to create their own economic opportunities.
Would-be business owners in rural areas can also have a hard time finding financing. In some cases, the village and regional corporations have business incubators that directly fund startups, such as the Bristol Bay Development Fund. A subsidiary of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the fund has helped shareholders buy boats, barges, and a marina, as well as to expand a family farm whose owners wanted to invest in a hydroponic system so they could grow vegetables year-round.
The fund was created in 2014 with the goal of infusing $5 million into the Bristol Bay economy over an eleven-year period. It isn’t limited to shareholders but is open to investments that benefit Bristol Bay shareholders, either via ownership, job creation, quality of life, or by providing a financial return. The fund also shares tips on such things as tax preparation, accelerator programs, managing seasonal income, and negotiating state and federal regulations.
One-size-fits-all regulations are not practical in rural Alaska.
That’s one of the challenges Nordlum has been facing. State regulations were written to manage modern tattoo methods. “We don’t use machines,” she says. “We do all the health and safety stuff; however, because there’s no machine and no splatter issues, it’s a real quiet and simple process.”
The state also requires site visits, she notes. “In the villages, that isn’t even realistic to have the DEC come out and inspect every place we tattoo.”
Another ubiquitous issue in rural locations is the cost of energy, a big factor in the sustainability of a recent new business in Kotzebue. In 2016, Kikiktagruk Iñupiat Corporation, the village corporation for Kotzebue, launched a subsidiary that provides fresh, locally-grown vegetables to a grocery store. Arctic Greens farm uses a hydroponic system designed by Vertical Harvest to grow lettuce, kale, herbs, and other vegetables year-round in the community of 3,200 located thirty-three miles above the Arctic Circle. While the cost is comparable to the vegetables flown in to the village, the quality is much better. However, because of the high cost of energy, margins are thin.
The hydroponic system, which relies on artificial light eight hours per day and heating around the clock, uses a lot of electricity—in Kotzebue this is primarily provided by expensive diesel generators. Kikiktagruk Iñupiat Corporation is looking at the potential of using solar or another alternative energy source as a way of lowering costs.
Another Kotzebue business has managed to survive decades in the far north. The Rotman family opened a grocery and general goods store in Selawik more than fifty years ago. A second Rotman Store was later opened in Kotzebue. Both stores are still in the same family, says Sally Gallahorn, who heads the business today, which caters to the specific needs of local residents.
“We’re not a big store like the stores in Anchorage,” Gallahorn says. “I guess you can find anything you want here.”
Nordlum says Rotman Store is a local landmark.
“What’s lovely about the Rotmans is they’re still there,” she says. “You go to towns like Nome or Bethel and I don’t know that there’s a family-run store there. It’s so lovely to walk in and see everybody. I’m happy they’re still making it work. As a business owner, I know it’s not easy.”
Entrepreneurship runs in the family: Gallahorn’s son Bish co-owns Kobuk Cab, a popular restaurant, and other Kotzebue businesses.
Regional Development by Regional Corporations
Many of the corporations include lists of shareholder-owned businesses on their websites and look for ways to help them, directly and indirectly.
Afognak Native Corporation, the village corporation for Afognak and Port Lions, runs a business directory on its website and works with shareholder-owned businesses for lodging, transportation, and other services, says Executive Vice President Alisha Drabek. The corporation is also working with communities to expand small business support services through a grant proposal.
“Afognak Native Corporation also provides career enhancement opportunity scholarships for adults looking to participate in career-relevant trainings or conferences, which has been utilized by small businesses,” Drabek writes in an email. “Before I was employed by the corporation, I had a small business and received this type of support, which was extremely helpful to me.”
Sealaska shareholders own a range of businesses in Alaska and across the Lower 48 that include construction, Native dancing, real estate, fishing, advertising, bed and breakfasts, gift shops, charters, and many more.
One is The Green Coffee Bean Company, a coffee roaster and café just outside Ketchikan. Owner Steve Krontz grew up in Washington and moved to Alaska to work in the logging industry. “We did a great job—all the trees are gone,” he says, jokingly referring to the industry’s collapse. When the bottom of the logging industry fell out, he started roasting coffee “as an experiment,” and business is steady sixteen years later.
“I was a real good consumer [of coffee] before I started,” he says, noting that he is a self-taught businessman whose goal is “producing and serving the best cup of coffee that’s available in town,” Krontz says. “We also have the world’s best cookies—an old family secret recipe.”
The café is seven miles from Ketchikan’s downtown tourist district. Its coffee beans are roasted on premises, with brews such as Sasquatch Coffee, “my number one seller”; Killer Whale, “like a breakfast blend”; Snappy Rockfish, “a blend of different African beans”; and Alaska Black Wolf—“if you drink too much of that, you’ll howl at the moon.”
His advice to an aspiring entrepreneur is simple: “Just do it.”
Success comes with hard work.
“You’ve got to be open every day or you don’t get any customers,” he says. “I get up at 4 a.m. We’re open every day, 365 days a year. No vacation.”
Nordlum prefers to work out of her home, so she can pick and choose which projects she wants to work on.
“I try to take traditional stuff and make it new,” she says of her artwork. “Mostly my stuff is kind of looking at our lives now and what we’ve become. Reclaiming the stuff we’ve lost that I think might help us as people.”