Triplets Michelle, Amy and Cika Sparck have turned harvesting plants in their Alaska homeland into a family business that benefits them and their Qissunamiut community. Descendants of a people who subsist in a vast wilderness of permafrost, they founded ArXotica, a Native-owned and -operated bath and beauty company. To run their business, these women hand-gather materials that grow where the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers form a 42 million–acre alluvial fan called the Yukon Kuskokwim. In this delta where the Yup’ik/Cup’ik and Dena people live, the sisters say they achieve 100 percent resource utility. “Out of one harvest,” first-born Michelle says, “many products are made.”
Michelle says the name ArXotica “is an amalgam of Arctic and exotic. You don’t have to go to the rainforest to obtain super nutrient treasures—they can be found in Indian country and the Arctic.” Michelle says the name of the ArXotica Premier Line, Quyung-lii, means “the potent one” in Cup’ik Eskimo, and every aspect of the company honors their heritage.
“Realizing we as a subsistence people had such a high wild-protein diet, what with the variety of waterfowl, land and marine mammals, and salt-water, anadromous and fresh water fish and shellfish,” Michelle explains, “how did we meet what seemed like a nutrition gap? The berries, plants and herbs we harvest were the obvious answer, but we had to go through the rigors of research and development to establish the virtues of our gathering for the luxury marketplace. We were going to be competing with premier brands that boasted the qualities of a rare French melon or Champagne grapes!”
The sisters commissioned an ethno-botanical report and contacted two universities and a private lab to analyze their ingredients. “We confirmed that our extreme environment creates a wealth of micronutrients ideal for powerful antioxidant products,” Michelle says. “Oxygen-radical absorbance capacity is a method of measuring antioxidant capacities in biological samples in vitro. We had our dried, extracted and post-extracted samples tested, and our levels were astounding. Being inspired by our culture and our lands makes us de facto ambassadors of our world to the marketplace, therefore we incorporate as much responsible cultural references in our branding, names and public face as possible. But we don’t pretend to speak for our people; we defer to elders and local leadership for issues beyond our pay grade.”
ArXotica’s commitment to local communities in the Yukon Kuskokwim extends to the natural world locals affectionately call “the bush.” “We don’t want to be seen as competitive with subsistence; we want to remain a niche company that only harvests so much a year,” Michelle says. “Should we grow if the market demands, we’d expand our reach to more remote areas, so we don’t stress traditional harvesting grounds. There are 50 million tons of biomass in Alaska per harvesting season. It is not impossible to grow, but we can also always go to other Arctic nations, working with other Indigenous groups, to contribute to local economies.”
And local economies support ArXotica. When forming the company, the sisters anticipated that their primary markets would be New York City and Los Angeles, but Michelle reports that about half their sales come from Alaska, and about half of those sales are to Alaska Natives. “It is the most validating gesture we could have ever asked for, for our own people to trust the care of their skin to us, and then be happy to support a local business while they are at
While people of this region have retained their languages and culture, this business is no nirvana. Michelle identifies affordable energy as the most pressing need in the [Yukon Kuskokwim]. “We are off-the-grid and depend on antiquated diesel plants to generate power and costly heating fuel. Obviously, we aren’t equipped to tackle that kind of infrastructure challenge right now, but if we start employing green technology in our purchasing and storage depots, we aspire to extrapolate other functions—like providing space for the Food Bank of Alaska—that typically don’t do business in the bush because of the lack of ambient- and cold-storage.”
The possibility of providing economic development as well as infrastructure seems real for this family-run company. With awards from the Alaska Federation of Native’s Alaska Marketplace, the Alaska chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, the sisters have already achieved success—and they are already giving back.
“We are annual supporters of Native fund-raising events with the First Alaskans Institute, Calista Heritage Foundation, Clare to Clare, and the Tundra Women’s Coalition,” Michelle says. “We also support Yup’ik Eskimo Snowboarder, Olympian, and X-Games medalist Callan Chythlook-Sifsof with products for personal use.
“When we speak of our community, it’s really about a region, as everyone has familial or cross-village ties. The [Yukon Kuskokwim], compared to other parts of the state, was virtually left alone until our mother’s generation. She was 8 or 9 when she saw her first Kass’aq (White Man.) Our lack of extractable resources like oil, gold, timber and fur seals kept outsiders from our region for a long time. Our villages typically still speak our languages first, English second. Subsistence is what keeps us warm and fed in terms of clothing, foods and by-products for our art and craft cottage industry. Many of our elders have seen incredible change in the past 30 years, and what they keep telling us younger people to do is get educated and learn the ways of the Kass’aq, if only to protect and retain our rights as First Peoples.
“The way we want to operate ArXotica is to not only honor our way of life, but provide a subsistence-compatible industry that makes living in the homeland possible, instead of having to move to the road-system parts of the state where the jobs are. Cika, being an art director and graphic artist, helps us maintain that cultural sensitivity, identity and translate it to the marketplace.”