My aunt Rosie asked me to bead some glove and slipper tops for a potlatch. As I’m beading some glove tops, and I keep getting a whiff of smoked moose hide. The balcony door is open. It’s a crisp and fresh morning. The birds are singing. I can almost imagine being at fish camp, smelling wood smoke from our camp fire and beading while taking a break from chores.
Smoked moose hide is ideal for doing beadwork on because it doesn’t unravel and holds its form. My ancestors and family have been using it for clothing for centuries. It was used for survival along with other hides and furs. Our people were resourceful and didn’t waste.
Nowadays, we use them for mittens, vests, dresses, jewelry, slippers, picture frames and much more. If you’ve followed me, you know I love beading slippers. I bead on smoked moose hide slipper tops.
People mostly buy them from places where they are commercially tanned. However, some people are starting to relearn how to process and tan them. It is a lot of work and you have to scrape it a lot. My late grandmothers used to work on them with help of family. Here my great aunt, Rose Ambrose, shares a short story on how people used to process smoked moose hide.
Artist Melissa Shaginoff (Athabascan/Paiute) has been demonstrating and teaching people how to tan moose hide. Check out Melissa’s website or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
I appreciate the hard work that goes into making smoked moose hide. If you understand the process and hundreds of hours that go into tanning moose hide, you will also understand the value of being able to use it but also the expense.
When preparing for Athabascan traditional memorial potlatches, families usually save up to buy a moose skin and distribute parts of it at the giveaway. The giveaway is a way for families to thank people who have helped them through the grieving process and who are special to the lost loved one. It is a precious gift to receive.
My friend, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, has a smoked moose hide vest. He wore it to the Smokehouse Gala and there was one woman who was sniffing his shoulder. He said, people do that all the time. I love the smoked smell. It brings back many great memories.
My friend and relative, Sonia Vent, shared about her experience of sewing a ruff made out of rabbit and marten fur. The ruff is for her granddaughter’s parka. A ruff keeps people’s face warm when they have it on a hood. Sonia is Koyukon Athabascan and is from Huslia. Her parents are Freddie and Lorna Vent of Huslia.
Sonia’s experience of sewing a ruff reminded me of my journey for beading and sewing slippers/moccasins for the past year. Taking up a cultural practice can be a spiritual experience. That little knowledge we have is powerful enough to connect us to our culture. I have found beading and sewing to be healing. Learning and practicing our culture is important. She graciously agreed to share her experience. Here it is below.
In honor of all the skin sewers now and those who have gone on By Sonia Vent (Koyukon Athabascan)
“I made a little rabbit marten skin ruff for my granddaughters’ parka. While in Fairbanks I rummaged through my mom’s furs, skins, and patterns helping her to both find and organize things. I had planned to make a ruff for my GD’s parka before then. My mom had some already cut strips of rabbit fur amongst her things which she offered for me to use. She also had a piece of marten skin that was part of something else that she said that I could have. Ana basee’ ena’aa (thank you so much, dear mom)!
What I discovered in skin sewing is that it takes a lot talent and expertise to turn out a well finished product. The fur has to be cut in a certain way so that one does not cut into the fur and the cut is only through the skin. My mom showed me a special way that she holds the fur as she cuts through the skin. Despite her now shaking hands she managed to do it like a professional. Measurement must be adhered to in order for the pieces to come together and for it to match up with the garment that it will go on. The sewing through the furred skin takes skill and talent otherwise the fur can be pulled through the skin along with the sinew or thread. It is important to find the “sweet spot” to sew through so that the seams are even and clean. I’ve also discovered the best light to sew in is daylight. Daylight is naturally bright and clear. I love the daylight!
As I worked on the ruff, I thought of my many relatives and ancestors who worked night after night to make new garments for their families to wear at for the different community gatherings and holiday events. Skin sewing with our people was done out of necessity and love, especially love. I envisioned mothers sitting by a low-lit lamp working into the wee hours of the morning to finish a product for a special event so their children would have perfectly sewn clothing for the Christmas Program, that husband may have a nice wolf ruff to wear to the Winter Memorial Potlatch or that young son or daughter may have new kakkanaa’ (fur boots) to wear during the snow shoe race.
I especially thought of late great aunt Eliza Attla. I thought of all of the beautiful garments that she had made over the years up to the end. I thought of how her loss of hearing seemed to have made her especially talented at sewing. I realized how and why as I found myself lost in my creativity. It’s almost as though creativity deafens one to all external noise. Skin sewing is a skill, if mastered, can turn out a finely finished product. A sign of love.”
I asked Sonia if she has any advice for people who are considering trying to do skin sewing. She recommends finding an experienced mentor to learn from. I can see how that would be important. Her mom, Lorna Vent, is a master skin sewer and beader. I remember learning how to bead barrettes and kkaakene (fur boots) from her at Johnson O’Malley classes at the school in Huslia. Sonia recommends gathering up the supplies needed for your project. She says, “Consider what furs will be used for project. Some furs are not recommended for certain gender.” That’s where an experienced mentor can guide you.
Sonia recommends being aware of your posture and repetitive motions. She says, “Holding a position too long it can create a real problem in certain body parts. Practice timed breaks and movement will prevent body ailments.” I know when I’m beading and sewing, I stay aware of ergonomics. Sometimes, my shoulders and wrist hurt after a long session.
It’s no secret I love beading. I love beading slippers/moccasins the most. Since last November, I beaded over 52 pairs on my free time on the evenings and weekends. It’s fun, therapeutic, healing, challenging and relaxing. I asked friends on Facebook recently to share photos in a “photo comment hello”, and some shared their beading and sewing projects and work stations. I love seeing people’s projects and how they set up their work area! I’ll share a few. Enaa baasee’ for friends and relatives for sharing!
Here’s what I’m working on today. I’m beading a pair of slippers for a friend’s daughter who is celebrating her 8th birthday.
This is my cousin, Wanda Moses of Fairbanks & Galena, and she makes summer parkas, aka bets’eh hoolaanee or kuspuks. I love seeing her latest designs. Photo courtesy of Wanda Moses.
My aunt, Gladys Derendoff of Huslia, enjoys beading. I love her creativity and her beadwork reminds me of my late Grandma Lydia Simon’s work. Photo by Gladys Derendoff.
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin of Huslia, is finishing up this beautiful quilt for my daughter. I love seeing her latest blankets. She has an eye for colors and matching fabric. Photo by Eleanor Yatlin.
My aunt, Dorothy Yatlin of Huslia, shared her workspace and her latest beading projects. I love seeing other people’s color choices! Photo by Dorothy Yatlin.
My aunt Dorothy Yatlin also makes fur hats. I love this purple color. They are the perfect hat for cold winters in interior Alaska. Photo by Dorothy Yatlin.
My cousin, Thelma Nicholai of Hughes, shared her beadwork. I love how she’s using white to outline her work. I will have to try white some time. Photo by Thelma Nicholai.
Janet Antone is hosting the @indigenousbeads Twitter account this week. She is Iroquois from Oneida Nation in Canada. She was catching up on American Horror Story and beading. Photo courtesy of Ms. Antone’s Beadwork.
I am learning my language, Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan), by attending classes this spring. There were some workshops held in Anchorage, and one in Fairbanks. The Alaska Native Studies Conference held four language workshops as pre-conference sessions. Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman and Lorraine David were instructors at the Denaakk’e workshop. Kk’ołeyo and Lorraine taught us a basic Denaakk’e introduction.
There are many ways to do an introduction in Denaakk’e, but it was great to get a basic one to practice. I need to work on pronunciation. When Alaska Native people introduce themselves, they share who their parents and grandparents are and where they are from. We also share our siblings, spouse and children (if any). It is a great process to go through just to put it on paper. I have been writing down Denaakk’e names of my family members. I have also been talking with my family about how to say words/names and it has sparked a renewed sense of my identity.
Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman has been leading a Denaakk’e class in Anchorage for the past month. There three more days of ‘class’ on April 22 at 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and April 29-30 at 9:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m. It is a co-class with Denaakk’e and Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa (Gwich’in). Rochelle Adams is leading the Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa class. We start together, go to separate instruction, then come back together at the end.
It has been fun to hang out with other participants and to learn together. It is a safe place to learn and okay to make mistakes as we are learning and practicing. There are people of all ages who attend. It’s fun getting to know people.
It has been a fluid process too where people have come when their schedule allowed. Kk’ołeyo says, “So far, we have practiced introductions, weather terms, animals, some demonstratives, and some commands.” They are all lessons you can learn anytime. Kk’ołeyo brings resources like videos, dictionaries, storybooks, and workbooks to the class. We reference the dictionary when needed. We have also learned a few songs where we learn words, like body parts and weather. At the Fairbanks training, we sang the airplane song.
One challenge to bringing teaching the Denaakk’e language is the number of dialects. I would say we are mostly learning the Central Koyukon Athabascan dialect. We learn from each other.
“I feel more motivated and disciplined to make learning my language a priority for me and for my kids. Taking this class has helped move me from apathy and inaction into action!” – Helena Hoffman (Koyukon Athabascan)
Thank you to organizations, like the Alaska Native Heritage Center and University of Alaska (UAF) College of Rural & Community Development for offering opportunities to learn Alaska Native languages. There are some great language revitalization efforts going on around the state. While I was at the Alaska Native Studies Conference, I heard about some great efforts for Denaakk’e and Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa languages. The Fairbanks Native Association is working to create a Denaakk’e immersion school for young children. A group of Gwich’in people have created a Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa language nest. They have been meeting on their own for the past two years.
It is a process to learn your language. I have taken Denaakk’e classes before and carry those lessons forward, and will continue to learn more. Learning the language and songs brings me closer to my family, friends and ancestors. I always get warm fuzzies when Alaska Native people speak in their languages and always feel empowered. It must make our ancestors dance for us to learn our language.
There is still time to attend the language workshops in Anchorage. The workshops are free. There will be on April 22 at 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and April 29-30 at 9:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m. The April 22 class will be held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s Athabascan Ceremonial House. The workshops on April 29 and 30 will be held at a location yet to be determined. For more information, contact Shyanne Beatty at 907-330-8071 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Huslia was the halfway checkpoint for the 2017 Iditarod. It was fun to be in Huslia as the Iditarod musher passed through. People of all ages enjoyed seeing the mushers and their dogs. The first musher arrived on the evening of Thursday, March 9. My daughter and I went to Huslia on March 10 and stayed until March 13. Each day, we made short videos of interviews with community members and mushers.
On the first day, Ermelina Gonzalez interviewed Barbie Sam, Jefferson Sam, Jessie Henry, Hugh Bifelt, Warner Vent, Sr. (former Iditarod musher), and Katherine Keith (2017 Iditarod musher). On the second day, Ermelina interviewed Warren Vent (grandson of late Bobby Vent, former Iditarod musher), Bill Derendoff, Kristy and Anna Barrington (2017 Iditarod mushers), and Nicolas Vanier (2017 Iditarod rookie musher). On the third day, Ermelina interviewed Agnes Dayton and Rosie Edwin, and we shared some video footage of racers leaving Huslia.
On the last day we were in Huslia, we shared footage the last musher arriving in Huslia. The Huslia Tribal Council gifted Ellen Halverson (2017 Iditarod musher) with a pair of beaver skin mitts made by Colleen Weter. Iditarod volunteers thanked the community of Huslia for all of their efforts for making it a successful checkpoint.
Playlist of all videos:
I was impressed with the community of Huslia and how they came together to welcome mushers, dogs and visitors. For about four days, volunteers worked around the clocks. Volunteer vets, dog handlers and officials came to Huslia too. The community hall was a place to gather for information, meetings and to eat. The community made sure there was plenty of food for everyone.
The weather was fairly warm in the teens and it was sunny. It was awesome to see the dogs when they arrived in Huslia. They had to pull a sled 478 miles from Fairbanks to reach Huslia. They are true athletes. I could see how much they enjoyed resting in the sun. The field in front of the community hall was filled with mushers throughout the weekend.
I am so glad I took a break from city life and went home to see the mushers going through Huslia. Watching mushers at the ceremonial start in Anchorage is always exciting, but it is thrilling to watch them on the trail. You gain a deeper understanding the strength, strategy and will it takes to complete the nearly 1,000 mile race to Nome.
Here are some photos I took in Huslia (click photo to see album on Flickr). Enjoy!