SITKA — Every time he hunts, Peter Williams sends a silent message to his prey before he squeezes the trigger: "Please give me your life. I'll eat some of your meat, and I'll make something beautiful out of your hide." On a cold afternoon in January, Williams, who is 33, was kneeling on the barnacle- and birdshit-encrusted rocks of an uninhabited island. On all sides was Sitka Sound, a narrow stretch of water off the coast of southeast Alaska. Williams wore an orange raincoat and earmuffs; his rifle rested in a dip between rocks. About 100 feet away, a dozen sea otters were bobbing in the water. He wanted a stray, at the edge of the group. He was moving with the sureness of ritual. For him this is ritual. When he scans the water for targets, Williams' eyes get unnaturally wide, like a mask, and his head starts to swivel.
His prey seems to have evolved for heart-melting cuteness. Black beseeching eyes, soft triangle nose, puckered little mouth: Sea otters look like puppies or human babies encased in fur. Pairs "hold hands," paw in paw, to stay together. As Williams says: "They're very human-like, not only their physical appearance but also their behavior. They're very social, they're very family-oriented. They're intelligent, they're playful." Sea otters float on their backs, limbs in the air, massed in a "raft." Snoozing, they tuck themselves into stringy beds of kelp. Williams is after their fur, which is the densest and softest in the animal kingdom. Russian traders once called it "soft gold." There is no material like it. The black, silky, lustrous stuff is so instantly comforting that it hardly seems like fur at all. Few human heads have more than 150,000 hairs, but sea otters stay warm with a double layer of never-molting fur, up to a million hairs per square inch.
Williams designs and sells clothes and accessories made from the otters he hunts. By reviving a forgotten and forbidden market for their fur, he sees himself as restoring a wounded culture. His father was Yup'ik, from the largest tribal group of Alaska Natives — who suffer as a whole, disproportionately, from poverty, substance abuse, suicide and rape. The tradition of marine mammal hunting runs deep among the indigenous peoples of Alaska, but beginning in the 18th century, white settlement brought the forced conscription of Native hunters and the near-eradication of many species.
Out on the rocks, a muffled shot cracked the stillness. The raft split up, a dozen black heads adrift in seemingly random motion, and Williams picked off a second. A shot to the head is the quickest and cleanest way to kill, according to Williams. "There's a sound when it hits, a thump you can hear when the bullet stops. It mushrooms out, expands and fractures," he said of the 55-grain, soft-point .223 rounds he fires.
Williams made for the Jenna, his ramshackle aluminum skiff, docked just off the island. He bailed out a few buckets of water and set the outboard motor racing before the otters could sink or float away. Wild little islands lay scattered across Sitka Sound, which opened wide on to the freezing North Pacific in the distance. A volcano stood glazed with snow.
A few minutes later, the Jenna pulled up alongside two floating bulges of sleek fur. Both females: a "sub-adult" and a hefty "old-timer" with distinguished white hairs, maybe 5½ feet long. "There's times when I go out to pick up the animal and it's still alive," said Williams. "That's what I bring the aluminum bat for. Life is a powerful force." He maintains that "clubbing is a really efficient way of killing something, especially if you do it right, you club it in the head."
He grabbed the otters by the scruff and dropped them in the skiff. One had blood on its whiskers, and its eyes were filling up with blood. Williams guided the Jenna into a sheltered bay of foam-flecked green water and towering spruces, known as Pirate Cove. On this cold cobble beach, Williams would do the skinning.
Blood dripped on his waders as he pulled the corpses onshore. Then he lifted each otter's maw in turn and gave the dead their last drink of water, following an old Yup'ik custom he learned from an anthropologist's study.
"The idea is that spending their life in the salt water, they get really thirsty," he told me later. "If they know that the hunter will give them their last drink of water, they'll give their life to the hunter." The spirit of the animal, reincarnated in another body, will visit the hunter again. Williams took a swig of water himself.
Fashion week approaching
"I don't really like to do it," said Williams — not of the skinning, but of the plastic gloves he was pulling on to do it — "because of the disconnection." But he wasn't taking any chances: Some months earlier he had contracted "seal finger," an infection common among people who handle the bones or pelts of seals. First his left thumb blew up like a balloon; he went on antibiotics for months; then came the tingling, the burning feet, insomnia, pain in every joint — a possible autoimmune reaction. Work had become almost impossible, whether hunting, designing or sewing. Still, he had little choice but to continue. Deep in debt, Williams had managed to network, charm and spend his way into a foothold during New York Fashion Week in February. Living well below the poverty line, he saw it as his last, best shot to get his business off the ground. Fashion Week was less than a month away, and he had a to-do list 37 items long.
Working fast on the sub-adult, he cut inside the thighs and around the tail, slit down the arms and around the wrists, then up to the chin. The fur opened up revealing ribs racked with perfect purple meat and a steaming tangle of intestines. Williams produced a larger blade, curved and medium-sharp, for scraping away the tissue and membrane. Ten minutes later, the hide peeled off with disturbing ease.
"I like to leave some meat for the birds," said Williams as he worked on the backstrap, the tastiest part, pushing chunks of meat into small Ziploc bags.
"Sometimes I make friends with seagulls. I've learned to not feed 'em until I'm nearly done. They get pretty demanding." He carved out a tooth — it's how biologists age them, he said, and hunters are supposed to submit a tooth for every kill, a grisly way of keeping tabs on the population. In the past you had to take the skull. He tossed the carcass and innards into the water.
"That blood," said Williams, euphoric in a patch of bay going Day-Glo by his feet, "such a beautiful electric red." A hovering seagull cried in the darkening sky.
"Kind of like heaven," he said.
The first time I met Williams two years ago, it was over plates of seal curry. I was in Sitka on a summerlong fellowship, and he brought the seal, which he'd hunted and cooked himself, to share with the fellows. He said what he always says right off the bat: "Alaska Natives are exempt from the Marine Mammals Protection Act. We're allowed to hunt marine mammals for food, clothing, and to make arts and crafts for sale."
Williams was a giant, gangly guy with shoulder-length hair and hippie sideburns. He had a way with women, but cracked off-color jokes. "Right on," was a favorite phrase, but the mellowness melted fast, giving way to a charismatic intensity. He was "a radical lone-wolf nonconformist," as he said, but a friendly one. "I'm this country bumpkin," he once told me in New York. "I don't really know what I'm doing."
Williams is a hunter-designer-entrepreneur with an unusual ethic. "My business is not separate from my activism," he said. "It's not separate from my spirituality, it's not separate from my culture." His clothing label, Shaman Furs, is a one-man operation: Williams hunts, skins, fleshes, stretches, sews, designs, markets and sells. Tanning, the process of treating the hides to make them wearable and durable, is one of the few things he outsources. He prints and uses Wi-Fi at the library and takes credit-card orders on his iPhone. Influenced by Italian design and indigenous art, he designs for simple elegance, confident that unique materials can speak for themselves.
Williams is aware that his identity and livelihood are based on killing a beloved and magnificent animal, but he argues frankly for subsistence — the cultural and economic right of Alaska Natives to live off the land and the sea. He understands that fur carries a lingering stigma, particularly for liberal North Americans and Europeans and partly as a legacy of PETA's famous 1994 campaign "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur", which featured supermodels. But Williams holds that conservation, imposed from the outside, can look a lot like colonialism. A small-scale, Native-run hunt can be sustainable and empowering, he tells anyone who will listen, and it is the thing that saved him.
In and out of therapy since he was 8 years old, Williams struggled for years with drugs and alcohol, depression and antidepressants, a sense of cultural trauma amplified by a very personal sense of doom. He was "locked up" in treatment centers, left home at 16, got kicked out of high school. "I would go from job to job, trying different things," Williams told me. "I worked at the local television station, as a janitor, at the tribe," trying to make it as an artist. He hit rock bottom, suicidal, among anarchist punks in Portland, Oregon: "I had to change, or I was going to completely destroy myself."
He came back to Sitka and taught himself to hunt, but for almost a year he wouldn't or couldn't kill a sea otter. He shot and missed, or couldn't bring himself to shoot at all. Six years later, he is deft and thorough. He can manage when the bad feelings come.
Homeward bound from Pirate Cove, Williams revved the engine, skipping over the crystal waters of Sitka Sound. The Jenna hit a constant speed — "Plateauing!" he shouted — and zoomed past stunned-looking ducks. Humpback whales were breathing up columns, smoke-white above the horizon. Sea lions, lovely and fierce, swam towards the boat. Retreating glaciers had formed the landscape: a submerged chain of icy mountains incised with innumerable bays, channels, straits and many-fingered fjords.
And there were 17 million acres, 5,000 islands more of this: the Tongass National Forest, encompassing almost all of the Southeast Alaska panhandle. Where else in North America does the natural world feel so vast, wild and abundant? During a salmon run, the rivers almost turn dark silver.
Car number plates proclaim Alaska "The Last Frontier," but the frontier mythology now comes with a postmodern twist, thanks to the bizarre boom in Alaskan reality TV. "The Deadliest Catch," "Yukon Men," "Bering Sea Gold" — some 20 shows are in production.
'Best wild game'
A few hours after the hunt, we were in the trailer eating sea otter backstrap, pan fried and lightly seasoned. "It's some of the best wild game," said Williams, "it's iron-y," close to venison. The hides had been salted, the Jenna dragged up on to Eagle Beach. We ate the wine-dark meat with salad and mashed sweet potatoes.
Williams' trailer is a home, office, design studio, storage unit and sewing room — with magnificent views facing out to the hunting grounds. The yard was strewn with useful stuff: tires, oyster shells, sand beds for a garden, the skulls of sea otters. Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" was on the record player and spent shell casings filled a former jar of artichoke hearts. There was fur all over — clippings and scraps, along with some of Williams' products: scarves, hats, pillows, blankets, earmuffs, six fur-encircled mirrors in a row on the wall. Hanging across from them was a 5-foot stalk of baleen and two Chagall-like scenes of hunting and addiction, which Williams painted himself. Three freezers — Alaskan freezers are not like other freezers — stood stocked with otter, seal, salmon, halibut, black muktuk (the blubbery skin of a bowhead whale) and elk meat sent by an uncle in Utah.
Despite the legal restrictions and ambiguities around marine mammal meat, not to mention the lack of market, Williams speaks lyrically about the culinary and dietary possibilities: "I'd love to open up a little taco truck with seal barbecue, or make sea otter sausage. I would love to make omega-3 fatty acid pills out of seal blubber. They do that in Canada." He cooks seal jalapeño stew, praises seal heart jerky and calls seal liver "the best of all livers," though personally he's cutting back — high cholesterol.
The next morning, we were in church. Yesterday's bloodied hunter was spiffy in a dark blue dress shirt and the "Peter Williams vest," a waistcoat he designed himself: half otter and half seal on plaid. Williams values the Christian community, but he comes from a bloodline of Yup'ik shamans. ("Good shamans, I've been told. Apparently there were good shamans and bad shamans — good and bad in the sense of intent and forces, not necessarily skill quality.") He describes his hunting as a "spiritual act of harvest," and before going out, he always "smudges" with a shrub called Hudson's Bay tea, passing the sweet-smelling smoke over his body as he prays for safety and for quick kills. He keeps these kinds of details quiet at church: "To talk about trees communicating to me, to talk about salmon speaking to me, I have other forums that I do that in."
Williams is used to straddling worlds, the traditional role of the shaman. He grew up doubly displaced: an Alaska Native among white folks, a Yup'ik among the Tlingits of Sitka. His mother's family was Pennsylvania German, missionaries and teachers who settled in Sitka. His father was from the Yup'ik village of Akiak in western Alaska — a land of subarctic tundra, thousands of small lakes, a thousand miles northwest of Sitka. His parents met while his mother was teaching in the village. Linguistically, culturally and physically distinct from most other Alaska Natives, the Yup'ik have adapted to life near the Arctic, beyond the tree line. They are part of a broader Eskimo family of cultures extending from the eastern edge of Siberia across Alaska, along Canada's remote northern coast and all the way to Greenland.
When he was just 6 weeks old, Williams came to Sitka with his mother. His father, who suffered from alcoholism, stayed behind in Akiak. "When my father died, I think I was 8," Williams told me. "He drowned in an alcohol-related boating accident. Four of his other brothers died in alcohol-related deaths. Out of eight years I don't remember a phone call, I don't remember a letter, but I also wondered if he did contact and I just wasn't aware of it."
Until recently, Williams had only been to Akiak once; he still doesn't speak much Yup'ik, the first language of Akiak and arguably the most resilient indigenous language in the U.S. "I thought you were a kass'aq (white person)," his father's mother once told him, not recognizing him when he spoke English to her on the phone. "Some people call it decimation, not assimilation," said Williams. "A lot of it (Yup'ik culture) I have to rediscover."
After Williams started hunting, he learned the ways in which the history of North America is bound up with furs and hides. From the 1600s to the end of the 19th century, millions of fur-bearing animals were killed across the continent, as indigenous subsistence patterns gave way to industrial-scale slaughter. Fur trappers and traders, often exploiting Native American labor, played "a major role in the settlement and evolution of the colonies," writes historian Eric Jay Dolin. At a massive, crumbling mansion in upstate New York, Williams once met an Astor descendant — the first American fortune was made with fur.
The European rage for beaver hats propelled settlement and trade from the Atlantic to the Rockies, but the history of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest was shaped by the mania for sea otter pelts in late imperial China. Feeding that insatiable market, Russian colonization followed the otter, whose traditional habitat centered on the vast peninsula of Alaska with its 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline.
In 1804, when Sitka became the capital of Russian America, 18,000 pelts were going to Canton annually. Forced labor fed the slaughter. Under Russian coercion, Native hunters went out in skin-covered kayaks, armed with bone- or shell-tipped spears and later with guns. By 1911, barely a thousand sea otters were left, and a single pelt commanded 200 pounds on the London fur market. That was the year that an international ban on fur seal hunting, signed by the U.S., Great Britain, Russia and Japan, also protected sea otters, almost as an afterthought.
In 1972, U.S. Congress passed the Marine Mammals Protection Act, adding a further layer of conservation and regulation — but also carving out an exemption for Alaska Natives with a "blood quantum" of a quarter or more, who "dwell" near the coast and hunt for subsistence. "Now we have a theoretical monopoly over this valuable resource, which brought us so much pain and oppression," Williams said. "I see the potential for healing and empowerment."
Today there may be as many as 100,000 sea otters worldwide, most of them in Alaska. Furriers and fashionistas have forgotten they even exist, while conservationists pride themselves on a textbook success. The southern sea otter of California is considered endangered and the otter population in southwest Alaska is officially "threatened," but the Southeast stock in Alaska's Panhandle is by all accounts healthy — far too healthy, say many locals.
An Alaska state senator recently went so far as to propose a bounty on sea otters, citing the threat to commercial shellfish beds. By eating up all the shellfish, the otters harm not only commercial shellfish divers, but themselves as well — creatures that consume more than 25 percent of their body weight in food, every day, tend to run through resources quickly. "Go get 'em" is what many locals tell Williams.
"Sea otters are becoming almost kind of a despised species," hunter-conservationist-author Richard Nelson of Sitka said. "They're devastating their own habitat. From that standpoint, Peter Williams isn't just out there trying to make a living, he's out there carrying on an important ecological service." But Nelson adds that an expanding market for the fur could necessitate "management regulations" — ideally run by Alaska Natives in consultation with biologists, "so we don't have a replay of the extermination."
"All of us live by taking other life," he added, "you can't opt out of it and stay alive." As Williams put it: "Disconnection from the environment led to exploitation and taking too much. The other extreme is you can't touch it, but that continues the disconnection instead of continuing the relationship, continuing the harvest and adapting."
In 2014, up to a hundred regular hunters across Alaska, people like Williams, harvested a record 2,100 sea otters — double what it was a few years earlier, according to a government-run monitoring program.
Williams took 38, "a minimal year for me."
While few make a year-round living, sea otter and seal are becoming an important source of supplementary income. With economic opportunities scarce in the villages, Native leaders are quietly promoting the hunt and the craft with skin-sewing classes, a state-funded "sustainable arts project." The hunt happens quietly — many hunters are aware that sea otters have their adoring fans, especially "down south" in the Lower 48. Williams, too, knew what he was up against.
Power washing fur
A few days after the hunt, visibly unwell, Williams got around to fleshing, the final stage before sending the sea otter's hide off for tanning. He clipped a hide to a board and blasted it with the jet of a power washer, removing what was left of muscle and fat, taking care not to tear a hole in the fur. Globs of flesh ran off, staining rocks a calamine pink. Once 80 pounds or more, the animal was now down to less than a tenth of that. Williams laid the hide on a rock. After a few weeks at the tannery — drying, hydrating, pickling, rinsing, oiling, tumbling and brushing — it would be a fur: something Williams could work with, something people will wear.
Back in the trailer, he had started stretching hides that were already tanned. There were enough for fashion week, he decided. Now it was time to create pieces. Williams sat on the floor, tracing with tailor's chalk on a swatch of fabric — the flaps for a trapper hat to be lined with fur, for a model to wear in New York. Once he cuts the fabric with a craft knife, a seamstress may help with the fabric sewing, but any fur sewing Williams does himself, by hand.
The sea otter hunt isn't "managed" like other Alaska hunts — no season, no bag limit — but legal ambiguity and periodic enforcement sweeps have left Williams with understandable paranoia. "I've got to make the thing from start to finish," he told me. Unless sold to another Alaska Native, pelts must be "significantly altered" by the hunter in a traditional manner consistent with a cottage industry. Williams' friend and mentor, Wade "Marty" Martin, once sold 10 sea otter hides to a non-Native, unwittingly he says, and a federal judge hit him with two years' probation and a $1,000 fine. A Native craftsman in Sitka was once hauled in for putting a "non-traditional" zipper on a sea otter parka and two "non-traditional" metal snaps on a hat — he only won the right to do it after a seven-year court battle.
There is a tension, too, between the economic pressures of modern American life and traditional Alaska culture. Many cash-poor Alaskans subsist on what they can hunt and fish, but there is also a traditional cultural ideal around self-sufficiency, autonomy, connection with nature, and a gift economy that extends to family, friends and neighbors.
Capitalism is "a slave system, a prison system," Williams once told me.
"I'm not an anarchist," he said another time. "I'm just a Yup'ik."
But he had just bought his plane ticket to New York, a capital of capitalism. He was staking the last of his savings on fur and on fashion.
On my last day in Sitka, we walked around a museum where Williams goes for inspiration and sometimes gives demonstrations. There were shaman masks and bentwood boxes a century old, looking pristine and timeless; there were snow goggles eerily reminiscent of Google Glass, and a giant sealskin suit fit for an astronaut.
"I go to craft fairs," said Williams, "and I hear about elders not even covering their table fees, let alone their time and money to get there." Young people cannot devote themselves to traditions that will not make them a living, he added, and he hoped to change that by going to New York. He pointed to dazzling totem poles at the center of the room. The creation of such ornate and specialized indigenous art is often attributed to the abundance of the Northwest Coast fisheries.
Meanwhile, life was harder, and the art more spare, among Williams's people farther north. "They had time to develop," said Williams of the totem pole carvers, "they had resources to develop."
Fur everywhere, but no buyers
When Williams brought his furs to New York in the middle of February, it was the coldest day in 20 years — much colder than Sitka — and the rivers were turning to ice. He had finished sewing the vests on the plane and assembled 100 pairs of seal earrings for gift bags while crashing on a friend's couch in Brooklyn, binge-watching "House of Cards." Overnight lows hit 23 degrees below zero Fahrenheit with the wind chill. The weather brought to mind an era when fur was a status symbol, when seven city blocks of New York's Garment District were wall-to-wall fur.
Six years before, Williams had shown up at a glitzy fur expo in New York, wandering the halls in baggy cargo pants, hair down to his shoulders ("I saw people wearing jewelry worth more than I've made in my entire life"). On periodic trips to the city since then, he would wear his furs, crash on couches, talk his way into parties, make friends on the subway. With no contacts in the world of East Coast fur, he cold-called his way into a relationship with a century-old fur firm, where he picked up tips about sizing, grading, pattern-cutting, and the kind of garments to make.
"I felt like I was in an episode of 'Project Runway,' " he said.
Now, uptown at fashion week's Lincoln Center headquarters, fur scarves and stoles were trending, and fur trim — much of it fake — seemed to be everywhere. The Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung was debuting a fur coat inspired by Native American motifs. A crystal fox fur coat was going at an estimated cost of $3,500. Fur is "making one hell of a comeback," gushed the website Fashionista. "We'd be hard pressed to name a major show so far this season that hasn't showed an excess of fur."
Downtown, Williams was setting up at the TechStyle Lounge, a one-day "anti-trade show" organized by a fashion PR firm. Buying the "Insider Package" had got him into a loft space with views over the snow-covered city, plus signage, invitations, VIP gift bags, "logo inclusion" and other symbols of professionalism. There was no runway, but he had been connected to the three young models — attractive and approachable, but not preternatural — who were now sporting his vests, cuffs and headbands. They greeted the invited bloggers, "influencers," one-percenters and assorted hangers-on who were taking a break from the runways to discover something a little different. Williams was paying for the chance to get noticed.
The TechStyle Lounge was not a venue for selling, but Williams had brought eight different products, ranging from a $60 seal headband ($300 for otter) to three different vests, priced around $1,500 each. "I'm hoping that I'll find some retailers," he said, "people that want to buy some stuff at wholesale," or even a boutique that would carry a few items. His price point might be high for Etsy, the online marketplace, or for the craft-fair scene, but it was normal by high-end fashion standards. It was all about finding his customer, maybe a certain kind of well-heeled hipster, who was looking for stories and sources and something unique.
Williams stood by the entrance with his models and products, next to a big photo of himself with an unapologetic caption: "I Hunt the Otters I Sew With." About a dozen other "brands" had informal stations around the room, each one straining to seem successful and established. There was organic lip balm ("handcrafted in a private kitchen in Harlem, six ingredients or less"), and "hot yoga towels that attach to your mat, like a fitted sheet." The morning "influencer fitness event" had featured ayurvedic lollipops; now people were hydrating with raw organic maple water and "couture tea."
Completing the new-age, new-economy carnival were the minor celebrities, said to be circulating: Billie Carroll of the reality TV show "Made in Chelsea: NYC"; 18-year-old Indy car driver Luca Forgeois; author, instructor and fitness coach Nadia Murdock. It was all about the connections and exposure, but nobody famous was hashtagging Shaman Furs on Instagram, or tweeting out mentions. As the afternoon wore on, Williams seemed increasingly anguished: "It's really funny to have this premium product where just about everybody who sees it loves it, but not being able to sell it yet," he said. "I have it, people like it, it's unique, it's special. How do we start selling it?"
"I don't think anyone has walked by without touching something," said Anthony, one of the models. A lifestyle coach from Atlanta posed for a few pictures, trailed by a publicist in gold shoes and army pants.
"That's sexual," said the publicist as he ran his fingers over the fur. "That's like in front of the fireplace."
A blogger awarded Shaman Furs her "close-to-nature authenticity prize," but disclosed an unease: "What would the folks from PETA have to say?" The global fur trade may be booming — $40 billion a year, according to the International Fur Federation, 85 percent of it farmed, rather than hunted in the wild — but the anti-fur campaigns still resonate.
When I called Williams the next morning, he tried to sound hopeful: "People seemed to be pretty interested and supportive of what I do, but I wasn't aware of any connections made. I wasn't aware of talking to any boutiques or any retailers." He was on his way to the airport, and I wondered if I would see him in the city again.
"I'm trying to stay positive," he said. "I'm trying to pull back and relax and open up, and that's usually when the magic happens." But if something didn't give, Williams said, he might have to work as a luggage handler for an airline, or train to be a drug counselor. Hunting and designing would become an occasional thing.
When we talked again a few days later, Williams was back in Alaska, sounding a little better. He and his girlfriend Carol had missed their connecting flight, but the airline put them up in a swanky hotel room, and they watched a dog show — "boyfriend points," said Williams, laughing. He was looking forward to gardening, he said. The first day back, he was out in his hunting grounds.
Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2015. Ross Perlin is author of "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." He writes about labor, language and culture for The Guardian, a London newspaper where this story first appeared.