With needles, sinew and beach grass in hand, a group of women in Alaska have breathed life back into an old tradition and learned a new skill in the process: sewing the intestines of bears into wearable garments.
To the untrained eye, the ceremonial bear gut parka Linda Selanoff recently helped create looks reminiscent of a clear plastic rain jacket. The translucent coat, trimmed with fur and seashells, is waterproof, windproof, lightweight and durable.
It’s made from the intestines of two bears, painstakingly cleaned and sewn together over the course of two weeks by Selanoff and other Chugach Sugpiaq and Eyak women in the Prince William Sound area of Alaska.
“It’s an honour to have had the opportunity to learn a lost art, a lost skill, and then bring one back to the region that doesn’t sit in a museum,” Selanoff said.
There’s a touch of reverence in Selanoff’s voice when she talks about it. Speaking with Northwind host Wanda McLeod, Selanoff described the process behind creating what was once a common and vital tool for hunters heading out in kayaks to harvest marine mammals.
Unlike many parkas that are pieced together — front, back and sides — the gut parka is sewn in a continuous circular motion up to the chest area.
Soft blades of beach grass line the seams and swell to stop water from getting through the needle holes — a special waterproof stitch that’s vital to making this parka.
When Sugpiaq elder June Pardue was very young, her mother Sophia Jane Johnson showed her on tobacco paper how to fold and sew that special waterproof stitch.
Back on Kodiak Island, where Pardue is from, a gut parka was created in the last 15 years or so. But for the Sugpiaq of Prince William Sound, it has been between 100 and 150 years since the last gut parka was sewn.
Pardue led the group in creating this latest bear gut parka, showing them the process just as her elders taught her.
“I’m just so thankful that my mother shared those things with me, so that everything came back to my memory,” she said.
“It was a long process. It was a beautiful process … and it was glorious.”
Pardue said they turned the parka into a ceremonial one instead of a functional one because they didn’t have enough intestine to make the hood. That gave them the opportunity to add embellishments — adding fur around the neck, the wrists and the bottom opening.
“There were artists working with me and I could see, wow, their eyes lit up. They get to be artists,” she recalled. Collectively, they designed the trim with seal and sea lion fur, decorated with sea shells and red beads.
Selanoff said her hope is that this project will be the start of a process to bring the bear gut parka back into modern use.
“We’re able to continue to teach and share the knowledge we learned, and how to make another gut parka. So hopefully in the future, this will become more commonplace,” she said.
‘The Copper River red salmon were running’
The parka will stay with Chugachmiut, the Alaska Native non-profit agency that put the class together as part of its language and culture program.
Selanoff said the advice to create the parka came from Chugachmiut’s elders’ program.
“We all decided that it would be a great idea to try to replicate the gut parka, because the knowledge of how it was made was lost to this area,” she said.
While Pardue, Selanoff and the other participants did the work of sewing, it ultimately became a community effort.
The weather was perfect when they began scraping the intestine clean in early June. They sewed the parka itself in a large building in Cordova, where people from the community would help strip down the sewing thread and cut out the fur pieces for the trim.
“People were so excited. They even brought food to keep us going,” Pardue laughed.
“The Copper River red salmon were running. So people were bringing Copper River red, smoked salmon jam, sandwiches and salads, fish heads — it was just wonderful.”
When the parka was finally done, the community hosted a potluck to celebrate.
“It was a celebration for their very first garment that had been made by their people in over 100 years,” she said.