‘Passing On Knowledge and Wisdom Through the Qaspeq’ by Sew Yupik’s Nikki Corbett

Nikki Corbett, known by many as Sew Yupik, is an artist and educator who specializes in qaspeq design and sewing.

I made my first qaspeq when I was around 10 or 11 years old with my sister/cousin/aunt. And then I didn’t pick up sewing a qaspeq again until I was in college in my mid-20s. As a kid I would watch my auntie sew qaspeqs and would just be in awe of her beautiful creations. I longed to be able to sew. The sewing skills I learned at school thanks to my amazing Yup’ik teachers. I am forever thankful for their teachings and it has been a dream of mine to be able to teach and share the knowledge that I learned from grade school, my aunt, and my college qaspeq teachers.

Nikki Corbett with students in her recent qaspeq class.

Sewing a qaspeq is not only a lifelong skill that students carry with them forever, it is also something that connects us to our Yup’ik culture. When I travel and teach my qaspeq classes I bring the qasperet (three or more qaspeq) that my grandmother’s have sewed. When I bring the qasperet that my grandmothers have created I feel like I am carrying a part of them with me everywhere I go. It is a reminder of where I come from, and the strength of my grandmothers.

In my classes I also share my story of my childhood traumas, and the generational traumas that I have carried for decades. I share my struggles, successes and motivation to continue to heal in order to live a healthy life. I think about when my grandmothers were growing up and how it took a whole community to raise them. They were not alone and were always instructed. I try to mirror that community feel in my classes to encourage my students to keep learning about their culture. To know where they come from, and where their parents and grandparents come from. To always remember the resilience and strength our ancestors had to keep going and to never give up. In sharing my story I hope that students know they are not on this journey alone and I am right there with them.

It is important for me to share the skills, knowledge and wisdom that have been passed down to me. I cannot be stingy with the knowledge. Qaspeq making is not just a skill that students learn but it is something that they can carry with them forever. It is something that connects them with their ancestors. By the end of my class the students will have created their own beautiful qaspeq, connected with other students, and have gained a new Sew Yup’ik anaan (auntie).

Over Veteran’s day weekend my son and daughter traveled with me to Sitka to teach a qaspeq workshop at Mt. Edgecumbe high school. In the qaspeq workshop I had 14 students attend and sign up to complete a qaspeq in 12 hours. The students in attendance were from all over the state ranging from Newtok to Koyuk and all different backgrounds.

By the final day the majority of students had completed their beautiful qaspeqs with the exception of a few were on their final step of attaching their hoods. In the qaspeq workshop students learned to use sewing machines, iron fabric, and construct their own qaspeq pattern based on their measurements. The students also got to enjoy some delicious native food including muktuk, uunaliq, moose soup, akutaq, baked salmon, salmon spread and fish strips. Overall it was an amazing experience working with the students. Qaspeq workshops with students will always be my favorite because I always walk away with new nieces and nephews from all over the state.

You can find out more about Nikki Corbett’s work HERE