Rico Worl aims to re-claim Alaskan Native American art

Rico Worl released the design for a U.S. postage stamp celebrating Tlingit culture, a first for the Alaskan Native American tribe.

Rico Worl, who lives in Juneau, Alaska, is Tlingit and Athabascan. Some years ago, he grew concerned seeing a large tourist market in Juneau saturated with Native-inspired art that was made by non-natives (a practice known as cultural appropriation). Wanting to address the issue from within, he first designed a deck of playing cards with images from the stories of his background.

“It was me, experimenting, how can we, as Indigenous artists, break into this economy?” he said. “I think there’s a growing demand for authenticity in the world. But at the same time, not everyone can afford that.” He called small tourist baubles like his decks of cards “a lot more accessible.”

Worl’s work did not remain in Juneau, or on playing cards. His company, Trickster Co, provided (among other things) basketballs featuring Tlingit designs to the gift shop at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington D.C. It was here that they came to the attention of Antonio Alcalá, an art director for the USPS.

“There are many typical types of books, art, and crafts on display in the gift shops of museums presenting American Indian history and culture. But this was the first time I saw a basketball,” said Alcalá.

Impressed by the fusion of pop art and traditional ‘formline’ art, Alcalá contacted Worl, and commissioned him to design a stamp to represent Alaska Native peoples.

Worl’s stamp features the story of Raven stealing the sun, moon, and stars to share them with humanity. Raven is a trickster in Tlinget stories and, like many trickster figures worldwide, an important cultural figure.

The new stamp design was unveiled on Friday, July 30th, in a ceremony at the Sealaska Heritage Institute, which has featured Worl’s art before. Eighteen million Raven Story stamps are being produced for distribution and will be available soon.

Image: Shutterstock / Milan Sommer