Cultural Connections: Shield and war club class preserves Native culture

Participants in the Ilanka Cultural Center’s shield and war club class. (Aug. 14, 2020) Photo courtesy of Teal Hansen

By Teal Hansen
For The Cordova Times

With assistance from CIRI Foundation’s “A Journey to What Matters” grant program, Ilanka Cultural Center offered a Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) Shield and War Club class taught by master carver Andrew Abyo of Anchorage.

Through this grant, ICC was able to provide an opportunity that allowed the community a chance to revive an art skill inherent in our ancestry and expand knowledge on the reality of life for Natives in the Chugach Region.

“It is important to teach the community about Native arts and cultural values so that we can maintain respect for Native people and their traditions,” stated Nick Tiedeman, Native Village of Eyak tribal member and CIRI Shareholder.

Eight students, ranging in age from 16 to 74, made a traditional Sugpiaq-styled folding shield and war club throughout this two-week class at the beginning of August.

In traditional Sugpiaq society, warfare was used to garnish wealth, avenge injustices, raise influence and acquire valuable goods, which included women and slaves. The Sugpiat would war with their own neighboring communities, with Unangax (Aleuts) to the southwest, Tlingit to the southeast, and with the Dena’ina to the west-northwest. Among other weapons and armor, Sugpiat warriors would carry these wooden clubs and large shields into battle. Sugpiaq stories and legends often lead to conflict and illustrate lessons that were deemed important for future generations.

Alutiiq shield class student Aaron Hansen. (Aug. 12, 2020) Photo courtesy of Teal Hansen

Throughout history, a majority of this area’s cultural artifacts have been stolen or taken to foreign museums or private collections around the world. Because of this, NVE tribal members have never had access to a Sugpiaq-styled shield or war club through Ilanka’s cultural programs or museum.

ICC was created in 2004 during a time where many of NVE tribal members were just beginning to create artwork that illustrated history with contemporary tools and mediums. As an establishment that represents the Indigenous people of the region, we must continue to look at how our culture fits into the contemporary world, where we wish to stand in the future, and do so without losing sight of our past.

By exploring traditional concepts taught by Abyo, the class was able to recreate a tool that was necessary for protection, cultural preservation and took an active role on shaping our history. It is for this opportunity that we sincerely thank The CIRI Foundation for their role in making this class a reality and appreciate their commitment to maintain cultural priorities.

Alutiiq shield class instructor Andrew Abyo. (Aug. 14, 2020) Photo courtesy of Teal Hansen

At Ilanka Cultural Center, we are always excited to promote cultural classes that allow students and tribal members to connect with their heritage through hands-on experiences.

Cultural classes can be taken by any ICC member, Native and non-Native alike. ICC members receive first notice of upcoming classes via email. Memberships are $20 annually. To become a member, visit ICC between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Tuesday or Friday when we are open, call us at 907-424-7903 to pay over the phone, or email Danaya Hoover at

Teal Hansen is coordinator for the Ilanka Cultural Center.