Born and raised in the Alutiiq village of Old Harbor, Sven is the son of Sven and Mary Haakanson. Sven has always loved working with wood. As a boy he remembers carving boats with his friends, although his formal study of carving began 19 years ago. As an anthropology graduate student at Harvard University, Sven studied rare collections of Alutiiq objects. He was particularly inspired by carvings and began to investigate their manufacture. His research took him from Harvard’s Peabody Museum to the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and eventually, to museums across Europe. With ancestral knowledge in his grasp, he consulted Alutiiq Elders for carving advice. Larry Matfay and George Inga taught him to built traps, and Dennis Knagin and William Ignatin helped him to learn bow construction.
Sven approaches carving as an element of his cultural identity. In addition to ceremonial masks, which he has studied extensively, he creates functional objects to explore and express his Alutiiq heritage. He is also committed to teaching Alutiiq arts, sharing the knowlege he had accumulated as a way to keep Alutiiq culture vibrant and to promote cultural pride.
Haakanson received a B.A. (1992) from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and an M.A. (1996) and Ph.D. (2000) from Harvard University. He served as the executive director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska for some years. He was an adjunct member of the faculty at the Kodiak College campus of the University of Alaska in Anchorage and the former chair of the Alaska State Council on the Arts. He is now an adjunct professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and curates for the Burke Museum.