Project: ARTShops 2018 Lake Iliamna Traditional Seal Parka
Alaska State Council on the Arts Partnership
Story by: Michelle Ravenmoon

The ARTShops program is a collaboration between the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation and The CIRI Foundation’s A Journey to What Matters: Increased Alaska Native Arts and Culture grant program. Established in 2016, ARTShops support emerging Alaska Native arts leaders to develop their skills in leading community-based arts programs.

For my ARTShop project I hunted seals with my sister Marlene Tilly in the winter of 2018.  Marlene had taught me how to hunt seals on the ice the year before.  I was able to harvest one seal for the project.  Marl taught me the techniques for stretching, scraping, and salting the hide prior to tanning.  I also harvested the seal fat to make seal oil and the meat for the elders in Kokhanok . 

Annie is the one elder in the area who knows how to make Lake Iliamna traditional-style seal parkas.  All of us taking the class were sewers and we all had never made a parka before.  In traditional times, there were many hunters and who brought seal home. There were also many who knew how to traditionally tan sealskins.  We live in a time when there are less seal hunters and next to no one who tans skins traditionally anymore.  Our problem as fur sewers is that our resources are very expensive and difficult to acquire enough to make a parka.  I talked with Annie and she said our child-sized parka we made and its great worth because of the time, furs, and intellectual and cultural knowledge put into it.  Some of us have never had the opportunity to learn because of our limited resources, including someone to teach us.  This grant has given us an extraordinary opportunity to learn when many of us simply do not have the resources to do it on our own.

It was peaceful to watch the ladies interact and fall into a time old tradition of gathering together, working on a community project and enjoying themselves.  We could have been gathered a hundred years ago and it would be no different in our discussions.  We told stories, laughed, and shared about our loved ones as we sewed.  Many of the women said that this needs to happen more often.   We remembered how important gathering and working together is.  

I feel like we all greatly benefited from the project, especially since we all gained knowledge of how to make a seal skin parka. The gathering together of women working on a collaborative project was not something that is done often these days and it was a great reminder of our roots and how this would be something our ancestors easily did.  It was warming to my heart to be part of this process.  

I had no idea how traditional culture would shine through in a project such as this. We had limited time, we were adding some non-traditional techniques such as using a sewing machine for the non-fur lining, and we were sitting in the local bingo hall.  I was impressed to hear the women starting to share our traditional languages (Yupiq and Dena’ina) as we put the parka together.  I was able to gather some stories from the women on how they were taught, which was by observation, then by trying on their own.  I was also impressed with watching how we got along, and the balance of the class. I watched as there were some power struggles between sewers, but how Annie took authority with gentleness and kindness.  She never said a negative word to anyone but she did tell us when we did something wrong and we had to correct it.  We were taught how to make the parka the “right way.”