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Yup'ik Elders revive traditional baby parka

Nov 7, 2019

Sewing atasuaq, traditional baby parkas, was almost a lost skill until a Yup’ik Elder helped revive it. And the result? An atasuaq, sewed with bird skin, from the coastal village of Toksook Bay.

An example of an atasuaq, or traditional baby parka, sewed from bird skin. (Photo by Krysti Shallenberger/KYUK)

Ann Fienup-Riordan unrolls a package wrapped in muslin. She’s an anthropologist who has documented Yup’ik life in Western Alaska for decades. The parka is roughly 2 feet long, just big enough to fit a 9-pound baby. The bird skin facing the outside feels like toughened leather, with the feathers tucked inside and peeking around the collar and hood.

"It’s made out of qengaallek, king eider skins, and four allgiar skins, which are long-tailed ducks," Fienup-Riordan said.

This used to be common in Yup’ik communities, where every child started life surrounded by bird skin and cuddled in feathers; there are Elders alive today who were snuggled in bird-skin parkas as infants. But over generations, the tradition disappeared as cloth diapers and commercial baby clothes became more easily available at local stores.

Making this parka and reviving the almost extinct tradition took the efforts of many people. It began with the memories of an Elder from Nightmute, Albertina Dull, who began her life in a bird-skin parka made by her mother, and later used it for her own children.

To make a new one, a hunter in Chefornak, a nearby coastal village, sent over some of the skins. The rest came from Toksook Bay. Fienup-Riordan said that the idea of making the traditional bird-skin parka arose during an education collaboration between Calista Corporation and Yup’ik Elders. That’s when Dull remembered the baby parkas from her childhood. Dull said that the parka was easy to make. She only speaks Yugtun, but KYUK translated her replies.

"It’s easy to make an atkuuk because we are Yup'ik. Because we are Yup'ik, we never throw away anything that has skin, like birds. Keep them all, then wash them. After washing, when they are all good, we make atkuuks out of them," Dull said.

There was one problem. At 101 years old, with poor eyesight, Dull couldn‘t sew the baby parka that she saw so clearly in her memories.

"My eyesight is no longer good anymore, but I can instruct," Dull said.

That’s how Fienup-Riordan and the others started making this parka.

"Since she could describe it, and we’d never seen one, we decided to go ahead and make one. And so last spring, we started to work the skins," Fienup-Riordan said.

They scraped the fat off the skins and washed them with Dawn soap before hanging the skins to dry. Then, to soften the skins, they rubbed them in a circular motion. All this Dull told them to do by memory, Fienup-Riorden said.

"For instance, when you are scraping the skins, the way she described it was, 'you hold the skin and you scrape toward the head, and then move gradually down the body, always toward the head.' Now, if you picked up a greasy skin you wouldn’t know that, but she knew that," Fienup-Riordan said.

The next step was sewing. A couple of women in Toksook Bay went to work, following Dull's instructions. The result is a tiny parka worn by a baby until it starts crawling. The tanned skin faces the outside, and the feathers line the inside to keep the infant warm. Blue cloth is stitched around the armholes and the opening in the crotch area. Pink ribbons tie the hood together. Fienup-Riordan thinks that it may be the first such parka made in Western Alaska in nearly 80 years, but the women in Toksook Bay plan to make more.

"Our joke is that we should have a BYOB party: bring your own bird!" Fienup-Riordan said.

Dull says that the more parkas made, the better they'll look.

"When we first make something, when we didn’t know how and our moms first taught us how, they’re very ugly at first. Our first tries are very ugly, but they improve. As we learn more, our work improves," Dull said.

It’s unclear where this, the first bird-skin baby parka in almost a century, will find a home. Fienup-Riordan hopes that home will be in Bethel.

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