Naataq Gear is a rural Alaskan business focused on producing a water-resistant version of the Qaspeq (kuspuk). With Indigenous People’s Day happening this week, KNOM’s Davis Hovey reports on this small business in Nome that’s doing its part to merge traditional and cultural Alaska Native values with modern materials.
“Well Naataq Gear is a female-owned, Indigenous-owned business that was founded in 2018 here in Nome, Alaska,” stated Alice Bioff, the founder and owner of Naataq Gear.
Bioff named Naataq Gear after one of her daughters. She says her background as an Inupiaq woman living in Nome has informed her business.
“So I was surrounded by women who sewed Atikluks, Qaspeqs. I was around that all my life,” explained Bioff. “I haven’t told this part of it, but I was also in foster care growing up and my foster mom was also an avid sewer. That was Agnes Pagel. You know Aggie, she sells Atikluks here locally and so she’s definitely an inspiration too,” added Bioff.
Part of Bioff’s business model combines the traditional Qaspeq design with modern materials like a water-resistant hard-shell.
“Traditionally the Qaspeq or Atikluk is an overshirt that went over garments to protect them. Traditionally some of them were made out of seal gut to make them waterproof, made with traditional materials,” said Bioff.
Bioff’s garments include modern versions of the Qaspeq which can be worn by both women and men. There is an Atmik jacket, a Siku jacket, and now a brand new product is unveiled …
“This is the Anugi, which is a wind-breaker. So this is it … We offer it in three colors. It also has the zipper pockets like the Siku and the Atmik jackets,” explained Bioff.
Besides expanding her business to create more garments like the Anugi, meaning wind in Inupiaq, and an upcoming fleece vest, Bioff plans to have Naataq Gear sold in stores throughout Western Alaska.
“And then having our products offered in, I hope, ANICA stores or AC stores, maybe even the cruise ships if that works out,” exclaimed Bioff. “And there was also a hope to bring manufacturing back here [to the region.] There was some discussion about that. You know, learning this whole industry and what it takes to produce something on a larger scale,” said Bioff.
Despite recent growth, Naataq Gear is still operating out of Bioff’s home, located in one of the more remote cities in Alaska. As such, Bioff was hoping to target visiting tourists for her clientele, but COVID-19 forced her to look elsewhere.
“We were scheduled to go to a few events, fashion shows, Trend Alaska was planned,” said Bioff. “We were invited down to Southeast Alaska for another fashion show. Those were definitely canceled, that put a big dent into our sales, and we had to pivot. We had to focus on online sales and start really pushing marketing that way.”
The other impacts from the global coronavirus pandemic included a lack of cruise ships coming to Nome this summer, as well as less tourism sales for Naataq Gear and other small businesses. Bioff pointed to the City of Nome COVID-19 relief funds and other sources that helped her stay afloat during the pandemic.
In large part due to social media sites like Instagram and TikTok, Naataq Gear is now reaching thousands of customers who are located all over Alaska and outside of the state. According to Bioff, around 98% of her sales are generated through social media.
The internet’s importance to Naataq Gear’s model cannot be overstated. Bioff says her business, the Trickster Company in Juneau, and others that share Alaska Native culture through the merging of traditional products with modern methods, are able to attract both Native and non-Native people.
“I think that is great. I think it’s opening up a whole new industry for our culture and to show and share who we are here in Northwest Alaska. If done right and done respectfully, I think that is important,” stated Bioff.
To learn more about traditional Qaspeqs [kuspuk] and this Indigenous-owned small business in Nome, go to https://www.naataqgear.com/about.
Image at top: Various Atmiks, Sikus, and Qaspeq jackets made by Naataq Gear in Nome. Photo provided by Naataq Gear and used with permission (2021).