Bethel Entrepreneurs share culture through t-shirts

By Rachel D’Oro, Associated Press, 22 August 2003
BETHEL, Alaska – Few will ever live the Yupik Eskimo experience, so John Chase and Andrei Jacobs are packaging a taste of their Alaska Native culture – with a little urban chic thrown in.

The Bethel men have launched a line of T-shirts embossed with such messages as “big fat uppa,” “mamterillermiu” and “nukalpiaq.” Translation: uppa means grandfather, mamterillermiu is a person from Bethel and nukalpiaq is a man in his prime, a good hunter and provider. A top seller is “I love to pukuk!” – Yupik for eating meat clinging to a bone.

“We look for universal themes,” said Chase, 28, who has known Jacobs since boyhood. “Any culture you go to, people like to suck bones. It’s not just old Native women who do that.”

The entrepreneurs are banking on that collective experience for the success of their fledgling company, “inga for real.” T-shirts and Alaska are just the beginning, they say. The enterprise is barely off the ground, but the two envision trendy young people wearing high-quality Yupik- influenced fashions in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris.

“We like simple yet elegant, products that have an emotional impact, products that command an unrelenting loyalty among the 14-to-35 age group,” said Jacobs, 28.

“Well, or anybody with a disposable income,” Chase said.

But for now, inga for real is all about $20 white T-shirts with color trim and eye- catching guttural words in simple fonts.

The company name refers to Jacobs’ nickname in childhood, when he split his time between his Yupik father’s hometown of Bethel and Philadelphia, the hometown of his mother, who is black. Jacobs, who now lives in Bethel with his mother, said living in two cultures figures heavily in the company’s focus.

“We want to educate the world on the Yupik language,” he said. “There’s also the urban element for me, living in a black home in an Eskimo town.”

Despite the international ambitions, however, moving beyond the Western Alaska town of 5,700 has proved difficult. Local sales were brisk at a July 4th celebration, where Chase and Jacobs introduced their venture with a batch of 300 T-shirts, individually packed in gallon-size zippered plastic bags, a presentation that is “so Bethel,” according to Chase.

Since then, they’ve lobbied a friend to sell a few T-shirts in Nunapitchuk, a village near Bethel, which is 400 miles west of Anchorage.

Chase’s cousin, Nunapitchuk Mayor Robert Nick, picked up a “big fat uppa” shirt at the Bethel event. He found it amusing.

“It’s humorous and has a happy attitude,” said Nick, 61. “It’s kind of a collector’s item.”

But Chase and Jacobs have yet to find a statewide distributor. Part of the problem, they said, is finding the time for a marketing blitz. Both hold full-time management jobs with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. in Bethel. Jacobs also is a member of the City Council and Chase is a professional Alaska Native dancer.

Other challenges are operating without outside capital and finding the right niche.

“Our product is not an Alaska Native craft,” Jacobs said. “Therefore with businesses that follow a strict handmade Alaska Native crafts business plan, we don’t meet criteria.”

But the two remain confident they can overcome the obstacles. They’ve enlisted the services of a Web page designer to develop an online site. They continue to fill orders from individuals through word-of-mouth publicity.

Once they finish developing a business plan, they plan to escalate their marketing efforts.

“We’re getting a good feel for what people want, a lot of feedback, a lot of ideas,” Chase said. “We need to have all our ducks in a row to do it right and that’s going to take some time.”

This article was re-printed in Alaskan newspapers including: Ketchikan Daily News, Juneau Empire, Anchorage Daily News, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and the Kenai Peninsula Clarion.

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