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Art of seal gut: Bethel workshop teaches tradition

BETHEL – The guts of a bearded seal can be transformed into rain parkas and mittens, bags and drum heads, translucent skylights and artworks through ancient techniques passed on at a recent Smithsonian-backed community workshop here.

About a dozen adults worked with dried seal and hog intestines to create their own egalret, Yup'ik for windows – in this case, miniature windows of seal gut, or irnerrlugnek.

They were practicing an ancestral craft and learning something deeper too. Cut open a hunted seal and everything is revealed, a connection to the essence of life, instructor Mary Tunuchuk of Chefornak, a Western Alaska village on the Kinia River near the Bering Sea, told the class.

"Elders used to say the seal represents everything that we are, that humans are," Tunuchuk, 71, said.

For two days, she led the workshop "Material Traditions: Sewing Gut," organized by the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center and the Anchorage Museum and held at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel. It's part of a series the Smithsonian center has developed to give Alaskans a chance to explore the old ways, raw materials and artifacts.

In earlier artist residencies in Anchorage and workshops that started in 2011, participants created salmon-skin bags, spruce-framed snowshoes, bentwood hunting hats and porcupine quill embroidery.

The new round started last year and focuses on walrus ivory, cedar and, in Bethel, seal gut. It includes weeklong artist residencies in Anchorage and workshops in hub communities.

Drums of gut

Only Alaska Natives are allowed to work with marine mammal parts; non-Native students at the Bethel workshop used hog gut. They all were learning to sew on gut for the first time. The class drew a mix: a teacher and a school social worker, a surgical nurse and a nurse anesthetist, stay-at-home moms and developing artists.

"I want to use a little bit of everything and not waste," said Tauni Rodgers of Bethel.

Mike McIntyre, who works in outreach for the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, said he signed up because he is always looking for natural materials and Yup'ik techniques for his art. Even his paint is from natural sources, including spruce roots. He is preparing for an art show that opens next month at the Yup'ik museum in Bethel.

"I'm hoping he'll bring some gut skin stuff," said museum director Eva Malvich, the Bethel partner who hosted the workshop.

McIntyre said he hopes to use seal gut for little drums on a mask. One day, he said, maybe he'll try to make a seal gut parka. Bethel is too far from the coast for seal hunting, but he went when he was younger and lived downriver in Eek. Now he needs a supply of gut to work with. Some people sell it by the roll, but it's expensive.

The Bethel workshop follows a weeklong artists' residency in December at the Anchorage Museum that included Tunuchuk and two other Alaska Natives, Elaine Kingeekuk and Sonya Kelliher-Combs. The project, funded by grants, brought in university students and middle school students, museum conservators and museum visitors.

"We know there is interest in relearning these techniques. It's exciting and it's interesting," said Aron Crowell, curator of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage.

Warm rain parka

Tunuchuk said she still makes seal gut rain parkas for her son and grandsons, as she did for her husband. The gut from one bearded seal – a large seal – is about enough to create one parka, she said. They wear them to hunt for more seals. The animal is eaten and rendered into oil, and its skin becomes the soles of mukluks.

"When it's winter out there, it's cold, and they go seal hunting, and it's rough seas out there and the splashes are icing -- that's when seal gut parka will keep you warm," she said.

A parka made out of properly prepared seal gut performs better than one from modern materials, she said.

"It gets wet and soft, but it keeps the heat in, the body warm," she said. In the old times when hunters went out in kayaks, the rain parka would have been secured around the hole where the hunter sat to keep water out.

Tunuchuk is retired but used to work as a bilingual teacher, first for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then for the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Chefornak is still her home.

"I'm so used to being free in a small village," she said.

She learned gut sewing from her mother, who was from the coastal village of Tununak on Nelson Island. When she was a little girl, her doting paternal grandmother made her a decorated seal gut rain parka. It was more fashion-wear than rain gear.

Bundle of thread

Preparing the intestine, qiluq in Yup'ik, is a time-consuming, sometimes smelly project, Tunuchuk explained to the Bethel students. Care must be taken at each stage so the gut is not punctured. It contains digested food and the tubes must be rinsed repeatedly with plain water until no sign of blood or other material remains.

Only the intestinal middle layer is used. The inner layer is carefully scraped away, usually with a tablespoon these days.

Tunuchuk said she also rinses the gut with saltwater to give the material more structure.

One student asked about using the urine of a young boy. In the old times, Native people rinsed the gut with the urine of young children and some still may, Tunuchuk said.

At the Bethel workshop, students practiced with hog gut, blowing up strips of intestine already cleaned and processed for sausage making. It will dry in a long balloon shape, then can be cut for sewing or use as decoration.

For sewing, Tunuchuk provided small pieces of prepared seal gut and the Smithsonian organizers brought the hog gut.

"Go ahead and make mistakes," she told the adult students.

The traditional way was to use animal sinew painstakingly rolled into a long thread and sewn with ivory needles. Now, Tunuchuk uses regular needles and embroidery thread, but even it must be worked up.

She adds two pieces of embroidery thread to the standard bundle of six, then cuts pieces off, tapering it to fit through the eye. She uses beeswax to keep the thread bundle intact; ancestors probably used animal tallow. That system ensures a tiny hole in the gut from the needle. The bundle of thread thicker than the needle then is pulled through, filling the needle hole and minimizing leaks, she said.

She showed students how to use their mouths to moisten and press the folded gut edges into a seam. She laid moistened seagrass along the seams as a cushion between the thread and the gut. That allows the thread to be pulled tight.

"It's easy!" said Maribeth Herron of Bethel, originally from just downriver in Napakiak, who picked it up quickly.

Maybe moose gut would work similarly, wondered Jennifer Lent, who lives in Fairbanks and commutes to Bethel for work as a nurse anesthetist. She said she'll try it, since her husband usually gets a moose.

Annie Roach, who also lives in Bethel and is originally from Quinhagak, said she always wanted to learn how the seal gut parkas were made. Her grandmother knew how, and her mother used the gut to decorate grass baskets that she sold. She liked learning, but the sewing method was tricky and time-consuming.

"Hardly anybody does it anymore," she said.

Note: This article has been edited to remove an inexact definition of a Yup'ik word, egalengqetuameng, which literally means "because they have windows, of a sort."