In a large, old, wooden building on the waterfront at Sitka Sound Science Center, a group of women gathers around a central table. A spotlight leans over their shoulders, lending light to a delicate creative process. Dressed in bright pink, Audrey Armstrong strains her eyes and carefully aligns mind, material and dexterity as she pierces a tiny needle through glittering scales.
Audrey, who is Athabaskan, is teaching a new generation of creatives the ancient technique of fish skin sewing. She has been sharing her skills and knowledge for over a decade, and this is her fifth summer teaching this particular course in Sitka— after four at Sheldon Jackson Museum this is her first year at the Sitka Arts & Science Festival.
As Audrey tells it, almost any Alaskan fish skin can be used for this craft, but she favors salmon. Salmon is the fish that sustains her family and culture, and it was a silver salmon that inspired her, 15 years ago, to learn this utilitarian art form.
“It was cloudy on the stream in early September, and I caught my first one for the day. It was all soft and gushy so I let it go. Then I caught my second one and the sun was starting to come out and it just shined on the salmon, and all these gorgeous purples, pinks, and dark colors were revealed and I just fell in love.”
This late Coho run inspired Audrey’s interest in fish-skin sewing. “I said, ‘Wow, I know my ancestors such a long, long time ago probably used fish skin,' but there was nothing written on it.”
She got to work and started researching. She went to the Smithsonian in Anchorage with others interested in skin sewing and found that while the Yupik were more prolific in their technique, the Athabaskan also made use of fish skin. “The only Athabaskan things I saw were made in 1849: a pair of gloves and a little purse made out of fish skin from our region." Audrey expanded her research and studied different techniques. "Then I just started experimenting with it and doing different things and that’s how I started, trial and error.”
In 2009, Audrey took her interest to the next level. In Kasitna Bay, Audrey and a group of 13 attended Fran Reed’s first and only class. Reed was a prolific skin-sewer famous for her revitalization efforts in the field as well as for her baskets that include seal gut, salmon skins, fins, ferns and more.
“She had terminal cancer and she was very adamant that this continued. I took her first class and it was her last class even though she had been studying it for 25 years,” says Armstrong.
“When she was teaching us she was very ill, so we would set up a big chair for her and we called it ‘the queens chair’. She would sit and talk to us and we would bring things up to her and she would tell us what to do next. Kind of like what I’m doing right now in this class,” laughs Armstrong as she turns to offer advice and to tie beads onto one of her student's pieces.
“In that same year, Fran died and we promised her before she died, that the following year after the class that all 13 of us would have an exhibit in her honor. We would show all different kinds of fish skin works: masks, capes, necklaces. And, we did. I made a big berry bucket,” recalls Audrey.
The women pause and admire each other’s works, sharing insight and grinning proudly over their pieces. “I’ve been working with it for 14 years now and I’m constantly learning from other people. I’m never going to be the expert on it but I love what I’m doing and I love sharing this with others who are interested.”
The students in this classroom are from all different backgrounds and experiences. One woman is visiting from England, another is taking Audrey’s class for a second year in a row. Some of Audrey’s students have taken their newfound skills and shared them back home with their Yupik villages. As such, these re-awakened ancient skills have moved from Fran to Audrey to her students to new students. “The reward is just knowing that I am passing on something, and now I have two young ladies who are actually teaching it. So it’s just spreading out there and that’s what it’s about."
“Let me show you something!” beckons Audrey. She displays a large open basket with a proud smile. “This is my Chief's basket.” The basket is trimmed with moose skin, shells and small orange beads to symbolize salmon roe.
“Salmon skin work is a lot of work, just scraping, scraping, scraping; getting the flesh totally clean and preparing it; it is a lot of work. But when you are done with your work and your creation, it’s worth it.” She holds up her Chief’s Basket again. “One night, I dreamt about my Athabaskan chiefs all sitting all around a table making decisions while passing food around in this, my Chief’s basket. So I presented to my board and they were in awe. Afterward, each one came up and thanked me for giving the speech and for what it all meant.” Her dream was realized.
Teaching and skin sewing are undoubtedly passions of Audrey's, but she's quick to tell anyone who asks that her first love is for fishing: “I love to fish, I’ll stand in the water for 8-10 hours a day just to get one fish!”
As the morning passes, Audrey begins to get antsy. As soon as her student’s questions start to calm and they seem focused and directed on their sewing, Audrey slips out of the dark woodshed into the bright Sitka day. She rushes down the rock steps beside the Science Center and meets her husband, who is hard at work snagging pink salmon where Indian River meets the sea.
Her husband has been pulling salmon ashore to eat and so that Audrey can share skins with her students for future projects. “If you ask any Native person for their fish skin, they don’t give it out because they smoke it with the skin on because all of the richness is in the skin. So none of my Native people want to give me skins,” she laughs. “We have to get our own!” She takes over the rod and gets to work. Reeling fast and diligently, she giggles and smiles.
“Salmon gives us everything. I use it all: the only thing I don't use is the male sperm and the guts!” She smiles as she pulls her third pink onto the beach and points. “This is what binds us and helps us and our families get through the winter. I’ve always considered salmon as my gold. It is my gold, g-o-l-d. It is our gold, all of the people who live off salmon. Money will come and go but salmon..! Your resources are your future.”