Maija Katak Lukin brings her sewing kit everywhere she goes. Making clothes for her family is as crucial as taking care of the people she loves and, by now, comes to her as natural as breathing. This year, Lukin will get a chance to share her sewing skills with anyone who wishes to learn.
Former mayor of Kotzebue and an Iñupiaq skin sewer, Lukin was selected for a 2021 Individual Artist Award by the Rasmuson Foundation in November. Lukin will create a full-length traditional fur parka using the same materials, furs and tools that her grandmother in Sisualik used. The process will be documented on film and photos as a tutorial.
“Not a lot of people understand how to make a parka or parky anymore,” Lukin explained in an interview in early December, shortly after the award was announced. “I wanted to make sure that I gave other people the opportunity that I had, which is to learn with me at the same time.”
Passing down the tradition
Parka is the traditional regalia that young women in Northwest Alaska often wear during Miss Arctic Circle and Miss Teen Arctic Circle — one of the premier events “a lot of 13- to 24-year-olds look forward to running for,” explained Lukin, who was born and raised between Kotzebue and Sisualik.
“It’s not a pageant in the stereotypical sense,” she said about the event. “It is a pageant of indigeneity. It’s a pageant that showcases your traditional values and your talents in the traditional way.”
Lukin’s relatives have a few old parkas that are lent between generations for events like this, but her immediate family – the line from her grandparents – don’t have one. Lukin and her sister have been wanting to make a piece of traditional regalia for years.
“I already had the skills to sew this parka,” Lukin said, “I just didn’t have the deadline.”
For this project, Lukin wants to replicate the parka that belonged to her great grandmother, Argagiaq Katak Harris. The parka is a pullover style made of squirrels from Sisualik with sunshine ruff and decorative black-and-white trim on the bottom.
“Every family has a design, and that is our family style,” Lukin said, adding that she is also considering making her own pattern for the piece.
Lukin learned almost everything about the craft of animal skin sewing from Harris, and her Finnish grandmother taught her to make patterns.
“I know a lot of people didn’t have that opportunity growing up,” she said. “Because I have this knowledge, I wanted to be able to give other people a chance to learn that and just have it documented somewhere.”
Part of the grant will be spent on the equipment for recording a tutorial: a camera, movable tripod, extra battery banks and light to help Lukin showcase small intricate details of the work.
Teaching and learning the craft
Teaching others is a passion Lukin has had for a long time: when she was 20, she dreamed of becoming an Inupiaq immersion teacher and attended Eastern Oregon University for Early Child Development.
“Growing up, I had really good teachers in elementary school, middle school, high school,” she explained. “I wanted that kind of a positive influence for other people.”
Lukin’s career took her a different turn: she used to be a Mayor of Kotzebue and worked for NANA Regional Corporation, Maniilaq Association and the National Park Service’s Western Arctic National Parklands. Now she is Alaska Native Tribal Relations Program Manager for the National Park Service Alaska Region.
Despite a busy career life, Lukin always found time for sewing – an activity that she has enjoyed since a young age.
Lukin remembers sewing for the first time together with her grandmother Harris. They were sitting on the floor in Harris’ house in Sisualik, and 5-year-old Lukin was watching her grandmother sewing a pair of maklaks “for one of her 60-something grandkids.”
“She gave me something to sew to keep me busy or keep me quiet because I talked a lot,” Lukin laughed.
Lukin said she noticed that her sewing wasn’t as nice as Harris’. She added that other parents or grandparents might have corrected Lukin’s technique by ripping out her stitches, but Harris encouraged her granddaughter instead. In the future, Lukin would rip her own stitches to make them tighter, but it was always her choice to do that.
“She just told me, ‘If you like it, it’s okay. If you like it, that’s good enough,” Lukin said. “I always felt like whatever I showed her, she would be extremely proud and happy, no matter what I did. And so it made me want to do well and do better, learn all the stitches and do them really tightly and make sure that they stay together.”
Today, Lukin is sewing clothes for her own grandchildren. Together with her husband, they have four children, two granddaughters, as well as dogs and chickens.
“I have a new granddaughter so I made her maklaks,” Lukin said in December.
The newest addition to the family, a three-month-old girl, received a pair of maklaks made with sealskin from the animal caught by her grandfather and sea otter skin from her great uncle’s catch. Lukin also used leftover material from her previous project: when Harris died, Lukin made maklaks for her burial and kept leftover red leather, traditional for the Kotzebue area.
“I kept a lot of it for my future grandchildren just so they could have a piece of her,” Lukin said.
Finding time for sewing
Lukin always finds time for arts and crafts, as does her family.
“My hands will never be idle,” she said. “Anywhere I go or fly, I have a sewing project in my backpack. ... We just spent a lot of time doing projects; we are kind of a crafty family. Right now, my husband just came in full wood chips because he’s making wooden spoons for Christmas.”
Lukin said that sewing is also an activity that helps her learn better. If she attends a teleconference where she is not taking notes, she is sewing something by hand. The activity feels natural to her, and she doesn’t need to focus on it, but by occupying her body, she said she absorbs information better.
“One of the indigenous ways of learning is to keep your hands busy so your mind can pay attention to what’s happening better,” Lukin explained.
But besides being a part of everyday life, a tradition and a learning exercise, sewing is also an art form.
“The Rasmuson Foundation supports traditional artists as well as Western artists, but I think that sometimes, as indigenous people, we don’t equate what we do as artwork,” Lukin said. “It’s important for people to understand that it is a form of traditional art.”