Infants strut their maklaks online as Northwest Alaska’s baby pageant goes virtual

Two photos of a child who participated in the contest. On the left, she is wearing a blueberry-print atikłuk. On the right, a replica of a parky made in 1949
Brandi Qalhaq Williamson’s daughter, Wren Anniviaq, wears a blueberry-print atikłuk and a replica of a parky made in 1949. (Photo Courtesy of Lovie Harris Baby Beauty Contest)

Any other year, an announcer would have read this description of Brandi Qalhaq Williamson’s two-year-old daughter’s traditional regalia to a captivated crowd:

“Wren’s parky has a squirrel and muskrat head body, with wolverine tassels and a wildflower qupak design above. Her bottom qupak design is the same as Argagiaq’s, in a much smaller version made with a black and white calfskin with dyed alder leather trim. The sunshine ruff is made with 67 pieces of wolf stitched together to make a continuous circle, with wolverine and sea otter inside the ruff.”

Instead, it was a caption on a photo posted in a Facebook group.

This year, to protect vulnerable people from COVID-19, the annual Lovie Harris Baby Beauty Contest went virtual. The contest allows parents to announce their newborns and toddlers to the community while showcasing craft, culture and creativity.

“It gives the parents a chance to show the history of their families – if they’re from upriver, or coastal,” said Saima Chase, the organizer of the contest, and former baby contestant back in 1982. “Each family has different types of designs for atikłuks, parkys, trim, and I think it gives them a chance to showcase what and where their babies came from, where their family’s from.”

A woman holding up a baby during the 1982 contest.
Jennie Johnson holds baby Saima for the baby contest in July 1982. (Photo courtesy of Lovie Harris Baby Beauty Contest)

The event has been going on for decades, with Chase’s aunt, Lovie Harris, spearheading it in the ’80s and ’90s. The city honored Harris after her death by naming the contest after her.

Chase says it takes a lot of work to sew traditional garments, and she wanted to give parents who had already invested a lot of time and effort a chance to participate before their babies were too old. She says that she wanted the essential elements of the pageant to remain.

“I didn’t want them to be discouraged by everything that was going on,” she said. “I wanted to make sure we kept it like we usually do when we have in-person competitions – when we introduce them, with their Inupiaq names and who their grandparents are and where they came from and then what they’re wearing and who made it.”

Shylena Naaqtauq Lie has experienced both live and virtual baby contests with her sons Leif and Bjorn. Leif won the overall prize in 2018. He wore a full sealskin suit with a waterproof coat and pants made of seal intestine. She didn’t get to see her vision for her youngest boy, Bjorn, pan out the way she thought this year.

“Because I thought it would cancel, I didn’t quite get all the sewing done that I had anticipated,” she said. “I was planning on making a fish leather vest and a few other items that I didn’t get to make.”

Even so, in the pictures she submitted to the contest, her son wears a parky made from the fur of a black bear caught by the boy’s late grandfather. Though she felt the virtual contest was well done, she misses the collaborative energy the live contest brings.

“It’s a competition, but we’re all kind of helping each other out, and just seeing each other’s creativity really helps encourage others to try and do something different for themselves as well,” she said. “So, I’m hoping it’ll be live.”

By going virtual this year, the contest was opened up to parents who have relational ties but live outside the region. Williamson, Wren’s mother, is originally from Ambler but now lives in Craig. She says this change made it easier for her daughter to participate this year.

“I was actually thankful that they found an alternative way to have everybody participate,” she said. “It was awesome too, because people who normally don’t get to be in Kotzebue, they were able to participate from Anchorage, Noorvik, Kiana, Shungnak, Kobuk, Ambler.”

In addition to overall placements in both age categories, titles like “Most Traditional” are usually bestowed upon babies, who, by the end of a long pageant, are sometimes sleeping as the certificates and trophies are given out.

This year, no prizes were given, partially due to a halt in fundraising, though each participant was sent a certificate in the mail. Chase says she didn’t want the event to turn into a social media popularity contest but rather, an opportunity to lift spirits and continue tradition.

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