The Anchorage Museum is hosting three Alaska Native artists this week. They are teaching students and others about gut sewing, a traditional skill still used today to make rain gear. They’re also learning about the craft from each other and from historical items in the museum’s collection.
Yupik elder Mary Tunuchuk picks up the beginnings of a raincoat made of dried bearded seal intestine and shows a group of elementary school students.
“This is the back of the hood and this is the arms,” she says.
The semi-translucent material crinkles like paper every time Tunuchuk touches it. She says the guts are extremely delicate when dry. You have to dip the parka in sea water to make it more flexible before putting it on. She says the traditional gear provides the best protection from rain and cold, especially when hunting on the ocean.
“The snow is blowing. The seas are rough. And you’re getting cold. If you have a rubber raincoat you’re gonna freeze to death. But if you have this one, this gut parka, you’re gonna last a little bit longer because it’s going to keep you warm.”
She says the guts are more breathable than modern materials, and they don’t freeze and crack.
Tunuchuk started sewing guts about 50 years ago. She says her husband needed a parka, and as a young wife she had to make one for him.
To make a parka, women start with fresh intestines from seals or walrus. They scrape off the flesh from the 70 foot-long guts and rinse them for hours. Then they blow up the cleaned intestines like a balloon and wait for them to dry. Tunuchuk says she prefers working with bearded seals over walrus.
“One time I asked my husband or one of my brothers to bring home a walrus gut. I’ll never do that again! It’s so much harder to work, to clean. It’s so wide, and everything seems like it’s super glued in there!”
Once the guts are dry, she carefully sews them together using sinew and sometimes sea grass.
“But don’t use a sewing machine or an electrical thing because those stitches are so close together that when you try to pull it out, you might tear it apart.”
Tunuchuk says sewing a parka can take many days. Every village has different patterns and stitches for sewing. She’s learned even more styles by looking at the materials in the collection at the Anchorage Museum.
Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center director Aron Crowell, says the goal of the residency is for the artists to learn from each other and from the artifacts. And they’re teaching the museum staff about caring for the materials.
“They’re also talking about the processing and the material qualities of intestines and other membranes from inside sea mammals and how those are uniquely suited to Arctic clothing.”
The artists will be at the Museum for the rest of the week. The public is invited to meet the artists on Thursday and Friday afternoons from 1 to 3 pm.