13 June 2009

Traditions of Sewing Shown by Newly Created Bird-skin Parka in Alaska

An ancient skill of garment-making was recently resurrected when a bird-skin parka was sewn in Alaska.

Using skills of her ancestors, Lydia Apatiki of St. Lawrence Island gathered many Crested Auklets and a few Parakeet Auklets and used their skins to make a parka in a manner similar to the traditions for native people of the Arctic.

Her efforts were a modern example of a garment-making which dates back numerous decades in history when different species of predominant local birds were captured, and their skins used to provide a distinct and warm garment for the frigid weather of the great north lands.

Garments from Unalaska, ca. late 1780s, when the area was a Russian territory.

Historic narratives for explorations to Alaska, indicate examples of when bird-skin garments were noted during historic times:

  • Samgoonoodha Harbour - 1778 - jackets of the men are made of the skins of the Uril and Arjen, the former is a kind of water raven; uril the cormorant, the arjen the oldsquaw
  • Samgoonoodha - 6/28/1778 - undergarment made of bird skins dressed with the feathers on and neatly sewn together, with the feathered side worn next to the skin; the garment noted was mended and patched; this is also from a journal from the Cook expedition
  • Island of Nawanalaska - 10/26/1778 - dress consists of a bird-skin frock; Samwell journal

Arctic explorations of the early 1850s provide further documentation of the use of bird skins.

  • Michalaski - 1851 - crested auk, Phaleris cristatella; Esquimaux about Kotzebue Sound and Port Clarence use the small orange-coloured plates at the base of the bill for ornamenting their waterproof frocks
  • Nuvuk - 1854 - dressed bird skins are used in making coats

Many decades later, other historic details indicate how skins of the local bird life were used to create garments. There are three examples of bird-skin parkas in the National Museum of the American Indian, and each of them were accessioned in 1923 and can be viewed in detail online (select Browse - St. Lawrence Island Yupik).

Birdskin parka: this garment is from the St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and was donated by Thea Heye. Skins of the crested auklet were used for most of the parka, with pigeon guillemot skins used to adorn the shoulders, according to details given with a description for the object (shown at right).
Birdskin parka: also from the St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and Arnold Liebes was the collector of this garment made from cormorant skins.
Birdskin parka: a third example from the St. Lawrence Island Yupik; comprised of skins from the long-tailed duck, or oldsquaw as it has also been called. Museum notes indicate the fowl were "traditionally captured with nets or bolas." There was a note included that indicated the skins were the best "in autumn after they have shed and regrown their feathers." Farrar Burn was the collector/seller of this item. The trim on the cuffs were made of dog skin, according to the museum notations.

Lydia Apatiki, of the St. Lawrence Island Yupik culture in northern Alaska, sewed a modern day version because she was "inspired to sew bird skin parkas while working in a kindergarten class ten years ago during Yupik day in the village of Gambell," where she lived, according to details provided by the Alaska Native Heritage Center. "That day, all the children and teachers were wearing traditional regalia and talking about the customs and memories associated" with their apparel, according to Heritage Center information. "Lydia could not remember anybody making a bird skin parka for a long time, so she asked her aunt, Adeline Aningayou, for guidance" to create a bird parka for her grandson.

Catching auks using a long-handled net, at Peteravik, Ellesmere Land, in 1855.

The bird skins were collected at St. Lawrence Island, a seasonal home for a multitude of auklets which nest and rear their young among the rocky escarpments. Her male relatives helped to collect the birds. "Perched on steep cliffs and gripping short handled nets, the men caught the birds as they flew overhead," according to the museum display. "They took their catch back to the village where Lydia and her female relatives skinned the birds and turned the skins outside to dry."

Lydia prepared the bird skins at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, publicly preparing the skins and sewing the skins together to create a modern version of a bird-skin parka. The process included washing the skins to prepare them for sewing.

When the garment was sewn together, white rabbit was used for the inside of the park, according to the information given with the display of the garment she made for the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Parakeet Auklets skins were used to "decorate" the chest of the parka, and to trim the back of the hood.

A grant from the Ford Foundation supported Apatiki when she created the parka for the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

The center has taken "extraordinary measures" to keep the bird-skin parka conserved, said Scott Neel, curator of collections and exhibits at the center. A mannequin and stand - as well as a climate-controlled case - were purchased to suitably display the unique parka.

Lydia Apatiki preparing a bird skin for use in the distinctive parka she created.

Lydia Apatiki and the finished bird-skin parka. Both pictures courtesy of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and used with their gracious permission.

"We are very please to have this piece here at the Center to show our visitors an important part of Alaska Native culture that has been revived," Neel said.


sildenafil said...

I would like to live in Bird-skin Parka, I love the snow and the cold.
My two Siberian Husky will enjoy living there!22dd

Anonymous said...

Ainu people of Kuril Islands made nice bird-skin garments too. The were made usually from skins of Alcidae birds.




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