Clothing for the Tundra from the Tundra
When Dr. Rebecca Wilbur moved to Fairbanks in 2005, she was shocked at how different it was from Quinhagak, the Yup’ik village where she grew up. It wasn’t just the trees, which didn’t exist at the mouth of the Kanektok River. Or the fact that her freshman class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks contained more people than her entire village. She missed the Native values that were rooted in the tundra, the deep connection to family and land. Nearly two decades later—after getting married, starting a family, and becoming an optometrist—Rebecca still lives in Fairbanks, and still misses home. She started Tundra Flower Designs in 2021 to create clothing designs that made her feel closer to the tundra. It turned out to be much more.
—AS TOLD TO AND EDITED BY MOLLY RETTIG
You started drawing these designs as a hobby during the pandemic. Now you’re selling fabrics at the gift shop in Bethel and other towns, as well as earrings, stickers, and art on your website. How did it grow so much?
There was nothing like this for us in the world. As Yup’ik people, as rural Alaskans, what we see as beautiful is different than what the rest of the world sees as beautiful. We don’t just see fireweed, we see Labrador tea flowers, blueberry flowers, salmonberry flowers, beauty in the earth growing again and becoming green again. I thought I was just doing my own thing, making something that represents me really well, and then it struck a chord with my people. I heard from people I didn’t even know saying, “I’m so thankful you’re doing this. We finally have something for us.” This is who I am. This is what I think is beautiful.
Who do you picture using your fabrics?
I made these fabrics for the makers, the women who sew and make clothing and kuspuks and mukluks, so they can make things for everyone else.
How would you describe your style of art?
My artwork is very pretty but also very intense, very moody. I don’t go into the lighter, happier colors like yellow, pink, beige. Everything is very defined and contained. My brain has always been drawn to fine detail. It’s like optometry—I picked the career that has a tiny organ with the most complex medical issues. It’s where I can bring out my perfectionism. Like this salmonberry—I spent three days drawing this salmonberry!
I can tell—it looks plump and juicy enough to eat. What does this design with all the different berries make you think of?
I come from a family where we would pick 70-100 gallons a year of berries. We lived by the season, so now that it’s spring, my body’s craving fresh boiled salmon and fresh salmon eggs. We pair buttercup greens with our fresh birds, then beach greens with the fish, then salmonberries with the smoked salmon strips. Blackberries go with the fall geese. Everything is seasonal.
How about this one with the mukluks—does this have a story?
These boots were my great grandmother’s. I was so young, maybe four years old, but I remember staring at her thinking she was so amazing. She only spoke in Yup’ik and had very, very white hair. I would go to my great grandparents’ house and sit at the table with them, not really say anything, just eat a cookie, drink some Tang, and then leave.
It must have been hard to leave Quinhagak and build this new life. What influenced you to do it?
When I was young the narrative was, leave your homes, go get an education, make yourself better. You’re not going to succeed unless you push yourself. The narrative has switched, I think. Now you can stay home and be successful, you can raise beautiful families in the village. You can live your life and have the best of both worlds. You shouldn’t have to leave to achieve everything, and yet there are not a lot of job opportunities in the villages.
How do you stay tied to your Native culture when you’re living in a city, working in this very westernized setting of a medical clinic?
I love my job, I love working with people, but it’s not who I am. My job is a hobby. My home is my life. When I go back to Quinhagak, my family is like, good job, we’re proud of you, now—how are your children? They don’t care that I’m a doctor. It’s hard being away from our land and our people and our language and our values. There’s always that homesickness, but we make the most of it together in the city. My cousins and I have made friends with a lot of people who’ve moved from the village, and a lot of elders. We get together to eat Native food, tell stories, and sit and remember who we were, and who we are.
What motivates you to keep creating art?
Someone sent me a picture of the tundra flower boots on a sweater they gifted to their 90-plus-year-old grandmother. That was intense, that they felt the connection, they recognized everything on it, but they’ve never been able to wear it and show it off before. That’s what keeps me going.
Rebecca Wilbur’s art can be found on Instagram @tundra.flower.designs.llc.