Mike Webber, a local artist and fisherman, received the Eileen Panigeo MacLean Education award on the main stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) convention on Oct. 21 at the Dena’ina Convention Center in Anchorage. Webber received the award while wearing a traditional vest of wool and sea otter fur; the wool represents a Tlingit blanket to mark his father’s lineage, and the fur represents his Alutiiq mother. Webber’s work as an Alutiiq and Tlingtit/Eyak Northwest Coast master carver can be found in museums from Alaska to Washington D.C. and as far south as the Grand Cayman Islands. The award was presented by Sheri Buretta, chairman of the board at Chugach Alaska Corporation.
Buretta remarked following the awards ceremony, “Mike deserves this award because of his commitment to preserving and teaching his amazing and artistic carving skills to the next generation of Alaska Natives. He is sharing his gifts and has chosen to take the difficult physical challenges that happened to him and turn them into a positive, beautiful life.”
Webber started fishing at age six and suffered a life-changing accident on his family-run seine boat as a young adult. He shared on stage that this accident, the healing process, and learning to walk again radically changed his life and led him to discover carving as a calling and passion. He went on to share that, “Some of the doctors told me, you know, this happened to you for a reason…You’ve got to figure out what that reason is. And when I got involved in Native politics, I saw our leaders and dignitaries… People wearing their regalia proudly, and it really interested me in my own culture… I wanted to have that pride.”
Katrina Hoffman, Mike’s wife, shared that she was emotional at a board meeting when she received the award news. “I feel so proud of my husband for his dedication to his art,” Hoffman said. “He’s teaching a class right now, and the students aren’t getting credit… It’s not through an institution, and he doesn’t get paid to teach. After a busy fishing season, I asked him why are you choosing to teach in the evenings when it’s your first time having free time? He said, ‘Because I love my students, and I just want to spend time with them.'”
“I started reading books to educate myself, and one of the books said that many generations can be scared, so it’s up to you to find a gift that was once an ancestors. I took that to heart, and I ended up grabbing a piece of wood working tools and carved a bowl, and it turned out really well… so I put that statement in my heart,” said Webber. “A lot of heart and a lot of passion led me here, standing today in front of you, receiving this award.”
Webber’s teachings and his resilient journey to becoming an acclaimed artist have directly connected to his daughter, Teal Webber Hansen, an artist and the cultural coordinator for the Native Village of Eyak in Cordova. “It is not just about traditions… It is who we are today and how we have to live with what has happened and how we evolved from that. And that is a large part of his work… It was about a new beginning.”
“My Dad’s path has been inspiring for me through his spirituality… His connectedness with his ancestors… It has been really powerful for me to see his spiritual journey through his artwork, and his advocacy for sobriety,” shared Misa Webber, Mike’s daughter who was raised in Cordova and currently lives in Dillingham, Alaska. Webber spends his summers commercial fishing and running his family business – Webber Wild Seafood. He spends his winters working on new art projects, teaching local design and carving classes, enjoying subsistence foods and spending time with his wife, five children and community.