Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Athabascan Fish Skin Master Artist

Audrey Armstrong  was a featured artist  at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in 2009. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Audrey Armstrong was a featured artist at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in 2009. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Audrey Armstrong is Koyukon Athabascan from the villages of Huslia and Nulato. She was raised by Rose and the late Harry Ambrose of Huslia, is the biological daughter of Bertha Captain, and the granddaughter of the late Sophia and Leo Captain. She grew up in Huslia and now lives in Anchorage. In 1968, she earned the title of Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO). Audrey has had many accomplishments and been an inspiration for many over the years.

She retired in 2007 from the Alaska Native Medical Center, where she managed auxiliary patient services. Although retired, she still volunteers at the ANMC gift shop. Audrey says, “It’s not work. I have a joy of being around culture and loved ones.” She especially loves volunteering during Christmas time. She and her family played Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves over the years.

Audrey Armstrong talks about her working with fish skin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Audrey Armstrong talks about her working with fish skin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

In 2006, Audrey received the BP/YWCA Women of Achievement Award. She also received a Shareholder of the Year award from Doyon, Limited. In 2007, Audrey was a recipient of the President’s Awards from the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. She was a great advocate for patients over her 35 year career.

Audrey has always been a positive ambassador for Athabascan and Alaska Native people. We are from the same community and her mom is my great aunt. I have always admired her positive spirit and willingness to help people. She is a well-known fish skin artist, fisherwoman and photographer.

Fish skin baskets made by Audrey Armstrong. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Fish skin baskets made by Audrey Armstrong. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Audrey’s love of fish skin began when she was fly fishing in Jim Creek in 2002. She fell in love with how the deep purples looked in the sunshine. She remembered how her late grandmother, Eliza Attla, used to sew with hides and make geometric shapes out of them. Her grandmother used every part of the animals back then. Audrey studied Athabascan mittens and bags made out of fish skin collected from the Holikachuk area (near the villages of Grayling, Anvik and Shageluk). She also inherited her love of jigging (fishing) from her late grandmother, Bessie Wholecheese.

Inspired by the beautiful colors, she thought to herself, “Wow, I bet I could make something out of this.” She treated and processed the fish skins in a series of trials and errors. Then, she started by making items like wall hanging and baskets, earrings, keychains and pouches.

Since those early days, she’s become one of Alaska’s master artists for fish skin. In 2012, she participated as a master artist in the Anchorage Museum’s salmon sewing residency program along with two other artists. The artists shared their hard-earned self-taught knowledge and techniques.

Audrey Armstrong shared her knowledge of fish skin processing and design at the Anchorage Museum in 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Audrey Armstrong shared her knowledge of fish skin processing and design at the Anchorage Museum in 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Audrey taught classes on processing fish skin and making artwork out of them. She mentored Karen McIntyre of Sitka. She admires work by Lisa Ballard of Huslia who making fish skin hide and creating artwork out of them. Audrey says, “Their works is beautiful! I’m tickled they are very talented.” Karen is now teaching classes. Audrey is proud to see many others taking on fish skin processing and artwork. She also admires work by Joel Isaak, a fish skin artist and teacher.

Audrey has helped to resurrect the processing and use of the fish skin and has helped many others. It is her dream and the dream of her mentor, the late Fran Reed. Audrey has many other hobbies, including being very skilled in photography and archery. I love her willingness to learn about the art form and for sharing it with others. That is how Alaska Native culture and traditions can be preserved. Ana basee’ Audrey!

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