ARTShops 2020 Traditional and Contemporary Skin Sewing with Marine Mammals
Story by Raven Cunningham
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.
With generous support from the ARTShop program I was able to provide education about present day threats to Alaska Native peoples, as well as traditional and contemporary ways of hunting, skinning, skin stretching, and sewing of marine mammals, specifically seal skins. Unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic, I was unable to host a class to teach in person, so I had to focus on personally outreaching to people who were interested. I worked with a few people within my community and within the State of Alaska sending them seal skins and teaching them how to stretch with video and written instruction. It was amazing to see these different individuals not only learn this skill, but some were able to take it and teach others through their social media platforms.
Eventually I plan to use the marine mammal skins that I processed to create a piece of art to donate to the Native Village of Eyak. I have a good majority of the project done, and will continue to work on the beading and finishing touches to the project. I plan on finishing out the project myself when I can, or if there is time where I can connect with other local artists within my Tribe to finish it together.
After graduation I plan on continuing teaching the traditional ways of our people and how to practice these skills in our contemporary lives. I hope to also spread awareness of the issue of blood quantum and how it greatly affects our Native communities. Marine mammals are a crucial and essential part of Alaska Native lives. It appears that the United States government created blood quantum as a way to assimilate and terminate Native people. Blood quantum is a hidden safety net that is placed into the fabric of treaties to ensure that benefits would be terminated. The moment when tribal members are no longer Native enough based on colonial tactics that were established to assimilate is the moment Indigenous people are bred out of existence.