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Kuspuks at the Capitol

By Rhonda McBride 5:29 PM March 2, 2014

First there was one. Now there are many. More lawmakers enjoy the comfort of kuspuks.

JUNEAU – In Hawaii they have Aloha Friday, when workers shed their business wear for the traditional Hawaiian shirt to change gears for the weekend.

At the state Capitol in Juneau, a similar tradition is evolving: Kuspuk Friday.

The kuspuk, which has a big pocket in the front and is similar to the modern “hoodie,” is a style of traditional pullover shirt or dress, worn by several Alaska Native cultures.

Originally kuspuks were made of fur — or with waterproof seal or walrus gut, a forerunner to modern rain gear. But when general stores sprang up in Alaska villages, women began to make them with cloth from colorful calico flour sacks.

In the state Legislature, the tradition began with Mary Sattler of Bethel, who was a state representative at the time, known then as Rep. Mary Kapsner.

When Sattler began serving in the legislature in 1999, she was young, inexperienced in politics and wanted to make a good impression, so she dressed in business attire for most of the week — except on Fridays, when she wore a kuspuk.

“I just wore them as a silent statement, of the pride I have in the place I am from,” Sattler said.

Sattler will also be remembered for a moment of exasperation in the Legislature.

She was on the House floor speaking about an issue of importance to her and became angry when she realized her colleagues weren’t paying attention.

Suddenly she stopped for a moment — and then scolded her colleagues for not listening and asked them to quit reading their mail and writing notes.

It was a moment captured by the media and widely reported. Some lawmakers say it was a turning point in her legislative career. From that time on, her colleagues began to show her more respect. But more than her words, her actions — her decision to wear a kuspuk on Fridays, may have had more lasting impact than any piece of legislation.

Today, Sattler works for Donlin Gold, a company working to develop a goldmine east of Bethel. She remains in Bethel so her children can attend the Bethel Yup’ik language immersion school.

But years after she left the Legislature, the seed she planted has begun to flower in kuspuks of many shapes, sizes, colors and patterns — that know no boundaries when it comes to party lines.

On Friday, Rep. Lynn Gattis, a Wasilla Republican, wore an elegant, silky kuspuk. Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat, sported a mauve, cotton floral kuspuk.

“It’s a nice little touch. It brings us together and reminds us that we’re all part of a bigger community,” Gardner said. “And it’s fun. And beautiful.”

In recent years, male lawmakers have begun to wear them.

Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage, the House minority leader, wore a kuspuk that’s deep blue, like the color of the Alaska flag. He’s asked his aunt to sew gold stars on the sleeves.

Rep. David Guttenberg, a Democrat from Fairbanks, had his kuspuk made by a seamstress in Downtown Fairbanks.

Sen. Click Bishop, a Republican from Fairbanks, wore a black kuspuk with elegant red and silver trim. His wife made it — and on Friday, they were seen going out the door of the Capitol building together in their matching kuspuks.

The Senate pages wear Kuspuks on Friday too, designed and made by a Juneau seamstress.

Senate page Rachel Hanke said she enjoys wearing hers but also appreciates the variety of kuspuks she sees on the Senate floor.

“Senator Huggins’ is really awesome also. It’s camo,” Hanke said.

Camo and proud of it.

Senate President Charlie Huggins began wearing his military-style camouflage kuspuk this session. It even has a gavel for the zipper pull.

He said he respects the kuspuk for what it means to the Native culture, but also feels proud to wear a kuspuk that reflects his individuality.

Rep. Cathy Munoz, a Republican from Juneau, approves of Huggins’ kuspuk.

“I think that’s the beauty of it,” she said. “Really, to be able to wear a garment that’s truly Alaskan, but also to express your own personality through that garment is very special.”

“Kuspuks are emblematic,” Munoz said.

Many lawmakers agree that Huggins’ camo kuspuk seems fitting for a retired army colonel. Huggins also is a collector of camouflage material.

“But if you look at it closely, that’s a fish,” Huggins said, pointing to the pattern of swimming fish on his camo kuspuk. He said they represent the endangered salmon of the Mat-Su region who are swimming in camouflage for survival.

So upon closer inspection, it would probably be more sartorially correct to say that Huggins is wearing “salmo-flage.”

Huggins also revealed he will try to get House Speaker Mike Chenault to take part in Kuspuk Friday.

If Rep. Chenault needs to have a kuspuk made, he need only look as far as Rep. Bob Herron of Bethel. His wife, Margaret, has made them for many lawmakers and staffers.

In fact on Friday, she was sizing one up for Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka, who already has a kuspuk, but said one is not enough.

“It’s a unique Alaska sartorial tradition,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “Just as you have multiple jackets in your closet, you should have multiple kuspuks.”

Like the barefoot shoemaker’s wife and kids, Rep. Bob Herron doesn’t have a kuspuk to wear — at least one that fits him well. But his daughter-in-law is making him one.

While Herron is glad to see an icon of Native culture catch on, he said it’s more than a fashion statement.

“It’s not symbolic. The kuspuk has a reason,” Herron said. “It’s a tool.”

The clothing, he said, was designed for comfort and safety while hunting and gathering wild foods.

But Herron’s wife, Margaret, who is Yup’ik, believes the kuspuk has a place in the modern world.

“They’re so comfortable and they look really nice — jeans, with dress-up or anywhere,” and she adds with a laugh, “they hide a lot too.”

“There are a lot of Native seamstresses, a lot of people throughout Alaska who do a great job of making kuspuks,” Sattler said, who began networking lawmakers and kuspuk makers.

And so a cottage industry was born.

Sattler believes lawmakers are helping to popularize the kuspuk when they are seen wearing them on “Gavel to Gavel,” a statewide public television program that airs floor sessions, committee meetings and press conferences.

Sattler said kuspuk-making and other Native crafts are a thriving sector in rural Alaska’s economy.

“And those are jobs that can be created anywhere,” Sattler said. “I absolutely think it is reinforcing the niche markets and mom and pop types of businesses.”

All you need is the ability to sew, said Sattler, who was pleased to see handmade kuspuks on sale at this year’s Fur Rondy festival.

Cottage industry or not, it would seem that every kuspuk worn in the Capitol building has a meaningful story behind it.

Huggins said he received his on his birthday in January. It was made by the wife of one of his staffers.

As for his plans to get Chenault to join him in celebrating Kuspuk Friday …

“He will rise to the bait of a kuspuk,” Huggins said. “He will rise to the bait. I know him. So we will see what color his is.”

The House pages do not have matching kuspuks to wear on Friday. They still wear dark coats and ties, so they’re rooting for Huggins’ efforts to spread the tradition.

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