Litnaurluni Program:
Tengautuli Atkuk / The Flying Parka

Grantee: Calista Education and Culture Inc., Story by Ann Fienup-Riordan

Thanks to The CIRI Foundation’s support, Ann Fienup-Riordan, Alice Rearden, and Marie Meade have been working with Calista Education and Culture and the University of Washington Press on a new book, Tengautuli Atkuk/The Flying Parka, to be published in 2023.

Based on conversations with Yup’ik women and men carried out over the last forty years, this unique collaboration brings together stories of the meanings and making of parkas in southwest Alaska over the last century.

More than fifty Yup’ik men and women shared sewing techniques and “parka stories,” speaking in their own language about learning to sew, different parka styles, family designs, and the variety of materials used in parka construction–including fur, birdskins, seal gut, and fishskin. These tradition bearers are the real authors of this book, and these are their stories.

In the past, everyone in southwest Alaska wore a parka. Some parkas were ornamented with tassels and beads and fancy stitching; others were simple fur or birdskin garments showing signs of much wear. Meeting a person for the first time, one could tell a great deal by looking at his or her parka. As some say, ones parka is like one’s family tree. And like a book, parka designs told stories and recalled specific events, for those who knew how to read them. Marie Meade compares the parka to an heirloom: “The parka itself will disappear from use and age, but the design will survive….The idea is your inheritance you can touch, feel, and see.”

One’s parka not only identified one’s family but displayed their hunting and sewing skills for all to see. Only a capable and hard-working man could acquire the variety of skins necessary to create a fancy qaliq-style parka. To sew a parka, women must possess both ingenuity and skill, learned through years of careful observation and practice.

Parkas were not only beautiful but warm. A loose-fitting garment with a ruff to protect the face was ideal wear in the wind-blown climate of southwest Alaska. When traveling in the wilderness, or just walking between homes, a person could not live without a parka.

People wore parkas in life and in death, and in stories they fly through time and space. Parkas are vivid windows on both the past and present, and part of a changing tradition very much alive in southwest Alaska today.

Born and raised in Akiachak and now living in Anchorage, contemporary parka-maker Merna Wharton is a shining example of this living tradition. Thanks to support from The Rasmuson Foundation, she spent five months in 2017 and 2018 sewing a traditional qaliq-style squirrel-skin parka, using the parka that her mother, Mary Ann Lomack, made for her in the 1990s as a pattern.

In 2018, Merna created a cloth parka, using the same parka measurements, for a Fairbanks art exhibition. Standing the two parkas side by side, she whimsically called the pair Iluungaqelriik (Two teasing girl-to-girl cousins), and the fur parka took first place in the exhibition. In June 2022 Merna and her daughters, Helen and Lanakila, joined me at Chris Arend’s photography studio to capture the pair. Merna had also invited her niece, Maisha Ivanoff, to model the original squirrel-skin parka that Merna’s mother had made for Merna more than thirty years before and that had served as the model for Merna’s work. A picture is worth a thousand words: Parkas have a rich past in southwest Alaska, and thanks to women like Merna, their future looks bright!

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