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Alutiiq artist rediscovers Alaska’s original raingear

Jul 10, 2019

June Pardue at the Sheldon Jackson Museum. Her mother first demonstrated gut sewing to her — by folding cigarette papers. (Photo by Nina Sparling/KCAW)

Picture the kind of waterproof jacket we all depend on in Southeast Alaska: long sleeves, a hood, maybe a drawstring. The best ones use some variety of next-generation plastics to keep the rain out while staying breathable and light. But these are far from the first of their kind. Alaskan Natives have been making raincoats for centuries, without synthetic materials. How? By carefully sewing seal guts.

The traditional art of gut sewing is nothing new to June Pardue. She’s in the last days of her residency at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, where she has shared her expertise in the craft.

“I’m  teaching people how to fold animal guts,” she said. Using seal guts to create waterproof clothing and accessories is a centuries-old practice of several Alaskan Native tribes. Pardue teaches visitors how to fold and stitch the guts so they keep moisture out and warmth in.

Getting from seal to raincoat takes time: a seal has to be hunted, then the guts have to be cleaned, dried, and treated. It’s equal parts science, craft, and ingenuity.

“So you take a look at an animal…and you look at the guts,” Pardue said. “They’re absolutely waterproof, nothing seeping out of it.  It took someone to say “Hey, we can make raincoats out of that.”

Pardue first encountered gut sewing when she would visit relatives in St. Michael, where her mother’s family lived. She grew up on Kodiak Island, where the practice had disappeared over the years.  “We had lost that craft during the times when the Alutiiq and Sun’aq people were enslaved by the Russians,” she said. After seeing relatives practicing the traditional art form on visits up North, Pardue got curious and asked her mother how it was done.

“She got two cigarette papers and showed me how to do the fold and where to do the stitching. That’s how I first learned how to do it,” Pardue said. Not exactly the traditional method, but it was enough for Pardue, who has since mastered the art.

The residency at the Sheldon Jackson Museum involves teaching visitors — adults and children — about gut sewing, without running afoul of federal laws that prohibit non-Natives from working with marine mammal products. Many of the people she encounters each day have no Alaska native heritage.

Pardue has come up with a clever solution so she can still teach the art. She called up a sausage making company and talked them into selling her collagen. “It’s 100% protein-made,” Pardue said. “It works just like working with the seal gut.”

Pardue’s residency ends this week, but examples of gut raincoats — made from seal, not sausage casing —  live permanently at the Sheldon Jackson Museum.