MAKING A ST. LAWRENCE ISLAND
Bird Skin Parka
Background Information

On St. Lawrence Island, in the villages of Gambell and Savoonga, women made light, warm bird skin parkas. Some were reversible. The sewer chose the designs for her hunter’s parka. A hunter on the ice hauling in a seal on a baleen sled can perspire. If the inside of his bird skin parka gets wet, he can turn it inside out and it freeze dries, while he still has a warm, dry parka against his skin.

Brief Description

This unit is designed for adults and for students in grades 8-12. It offers instructions on how to obtain, prepare, and sew bird skins into a traditional-style St. Lawrence Island atkuk, or parka. Students will learn the hunting gear needed to hunt the birds, as well as locations where birds are hunted. Students will use this knowledge to make their own bird skin parkas.

If no bird skins are available, teachers might adjust this unit by using other materials, including more readily available skins or even heavy cloth. Students should learn and use the correct stitches in the construction of their parkas.

As an alternative to sewing a parka, teachers might use this unit as an art appreciation or cultural/historical unit that demonstrates the close ties between clothing and the environment. Suggestions for taking this approach are included in the Transfer Tasks and Learning Experiences sections of the unit description.

You will need about six weeks to prepare the bird skins, then another three weeks to complete the sewing.

There is no known documentation of how to sew a traditional bird skin parka, and elderly women in Gambell are no longer alive to pass this knowledge on to the youth. Lydia Apatiki believes that preserving this knowledge by documenting sewing practices for future generations will help interested persons learn about traditional values, remember St. Lawrence Island Yupik terminology used to identify parts of projects, and learn traditional stitches.

DESIRED OUTCOMES

OVERARCHING UNDERSTANDINGS

1. The hunters of St. Lawrence Island had clothing perfectly suited to the activity they were engaged in. One essential article of clothing was a bird skin parka.
2. Hunters’ wives made all the clothing for their husbands. Each item needed to be both functional and beautiful. Each item of clothing was at the same time distinctive to the sewer and followed a generalized pattern that was common to all such items.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS

1. Why was the bird skin parka a valuable and useful item of clothing for a hunter?
2. How do you make a bird skin parka?
3. How did individual sewers make their parkas distinctive?
4. What characterizes a beautiful bird skin parka?

KNOWLEDGE: STUDENTS WILL KNOW:

1. materials used in bird hunting;
2. cautions necessary while hunting;
3. basic aspects of the Migratory Bird Act as they relate to harvesting crested auklets;
4. types of birds used to make parkas in various parts of coastal Alaska;
5. the equipment and hunting techniques used to catch birds for food and for byproducts such as a bird skin parka;
6. functional survival aspects of a bird skin parka;
7. vocabulary

SKILLS: STUDENTS WILL BE ABLE TO:

1. describe how to catch birds for a bird skin parka;
2. prepare bird skins for a parka (or, alternatively, describe how bird skins are prepared for a parka);
3. design a parka for a particular individual;
4. sew skins using the metghit stitch to make a parka;
5. describe various stitches used in sewing;
6. define and use Yupik terms for birds, bird hunting tools, parka parts and materials, and stitches;
7. explain the features of a bird skin parka that make it an effective item of clothing.

Buy the complete curriculum and patterns

Check out the other activities:

Lydia Apatiki Sewing

The creation of this curriculum was supported by Kawerak, Inc., First Peoples Fund, CIRI Foundation, Bering Sea Lions Club, Partnow Consulting, and Gales Communications and Design. We are thankful to those who assisted in the coordination and development of the curriculum: Alice Bioff, Patricia Partnow, George Stransky, Carol Gales, Lisa Ellanna, Colleen Reynolds, Tanya Wongittilin, Vera Metcalf, B. Yaayuk Alvanna Stimpfle, Dianne (Igluquq) Okleasik, Donna James, and Patti Lillie. We are also very grateful for the approval and support from the Native Community of Gambell.