Water is Life in Kwethluk

October 7, 2019

Community. Culture. Connections.

In Kwethluk, Alaska, a larger-than-life painting celebrates all this and more. The colorful mural is the result of a nationwide project called Water is Life and is one of many pieces of art that have sprung up in Tribal community centers and on water storage tanks in communities in Alaska and Montana. The murals are a celebration of the importance of water in Alaska Native and American Indian traditions and history. But it is not the only purpose.

At its simplest, Water is Life community projects celebrate the role of water in Alaska Native and American Indian culture and traditions through songs, photos, stories, and art. At its heart, the project connects people, ignites a sense of community, and promotes awareness and pride in ownership of Tribal water and water systems.

These public art installations are part of an outreach program by the National Tribal Water Center (NTWC), located within the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. NTWC collaborates with Alaska Native and American Indian communities to raise awareness of the need to protect sustainable water sources and water infrastructure and illustrate the health benefits of clean water.

The people of Kwethluk, a community at the confluence of the Kuskokwim and Kwethluk rivers, live and work by the seasonal rhythms of freeze and flow. Their 8-foot by 16-foot mural, inspired by the residents and painted by Yup’ik artist Apayu Moore and the children of Kwethluk, depicts the Kwethluk River in summer. Outboard boats navigate the currents as the river meanders by golden salmonberries, moose, salmon drying in a smokehouse, and a family of brown bears. In the background, Three Step Mountain overlooks all the bounty and beauty their river provides.

Water is Life’s founders hope that the murals will become conversation starters and a source of pride and reflection.

“Most of the adults who walked in and saw it had a story of berry picking, hunting, or boat trips in that area,” Moore said of Kwethluk’s mural. “It was fulfilling to see how the painting brought out so much sharing and memories.”

Organizers for Kwethluk’s mural project used the Water is Life Education + Outreach Curriculum to guide them through the process. The free 40-page booklet covers everything a community needs for its own mural project, from inception and funding to outreach and education, and finally, to the grand unveiling and celebration.

Those interested in bringing a Water is Life project to their community can download Water is Life Education + Outreach Curriculum on the NTWC website, www.tribalwater.org.

The Water is Life outreach program is organized by the NTWC and funded by the Centers for Disease Control, Indian Health Services, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. For more information, contact NTWC at (907) 729-3635.

Artist statement:

Apay’uq Moore is a Yup’ik artist from Bristol Bay. Her primary subject matter shines light on the best parts of rural Alaska and the way of life. Taking part in the Kwethluk, Water is Life Project, was directly related to her life’s work and was a great opportunity to engage with a new Yup’ik community. A village meeting was held to share dialog around the value of water and personal relation to the values of people in the village. From that meeting, inspiration was drawn on and it was decided to use the Kwethluk River as the central focus, as it gives life to all that is around it and offers a path to get to any place that food is gathered. 3-Step Mountain in the background is a common destination, and it offered a starting point for story telling while painting. Many walked into the room and instantly connected with a time or trip they went hunting or berry picking on or near the mountain. The stories were full of nostalgia, filling the room with love and joy, as youth painted and listened to the adults tell stories. The project was a great reminder of how water connects generations, through travel, survival and spirit. 

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