Catch them if you can: local earrings make a big splash

A collection of the Alutiiq Angels earrings displaying their various colors, shapes and styles. Photo by Jane Spencer/For the Cordova Times
A collection of the Alutiiq Angels earrings displaying their various colors, shapes and styles. Photo by Jane Spencer/For the Cordova Times

When mother and daughter Peggy McDaniel and Brittney Banks wanted to try a new way to sell their fish-skin earrings, they started the Instagram page Alutiiq Angels in August 2018. Business was slow in the beginning.

“We were so excited when things would sell within the month on the page, we’d call each other and say, ‘Oh my god, it just sold!’” Banks said, laughing. 

But sales steadily increased, and soon demand became too much for them.

“We were taking orders, but we couldn’t keep up,” McDaniel said.

While they were happy about the success, the orders kept coming in.

“We were drowning,” Banks said matter-of-factly. 

Fortunately, two more talented family members joined Alutiiq Angels: Peggy’s sister Mary Babic and her daughter Christine Babic.

Now, over a year since starting their Instagram page, their earrings have gained a bit of a local cult following. They have never advertised or used hashtags, yet they have almost 1,700 Instagram followers. And their earrings sell within seconds — not just to Alaskan customers, but to customers in Virginia, Ohio, California, New York, Hawaii, Texas, Idaho and Canada.

Each pair of earrings is one-of-a-kind and handmade. They use fish skins they tan and dye themselves, and the earrings feature colorful beading and porcupine quills. What is remarkable is the range of shapes, bold colors and beading patterns that reflect a cohesive signature aesthetic and show their individualities. 

Each of the Alutiiq Angels has their own unique style. Photo by Jane Spencer/For the Cordova Times
Each of the Alutiiq Angels has their own unique style. Photo by Jane Spencer/For the Cordova Times

“I think we are able to offer such a variety because we all have our different styles,” McDaniels said. “You could totally put the same things in front of all of us and we’d all come out with something different whether it’s a different shape or style, so that’s where I think we are able to offer that variety, because there’s four of us on that page.”

Sisters McDaniel and Mary Babic used to travel to markets in Alaska and the Southwest to sell earrings, and while they enjoyed traveling and connecting with other artists, expenses for travel and shows were costly.

Alutiiq Angels chose their name to honor their Alaska Native heritage. For centuries Alaska Natives found many uses for fish skin as part of their subsistence lifestyle. There are traditional and non-traditional methods to tan fish skins and, after much experimentation, they chose the non-traditional way: using vegetable glycerin and oil. Traditional methods of tanning fish skin include using fat, animal brains and urine. 

“Frances Samuelson was the first one who shared a little with us,” Mary Babic explained. “She would tan her fish skins with deer brains. The rule of thumb is that an animal has enough brains to tan its own hide. But fish brains are very small. So, she would go and get pork, deer or moose brains, so she shared that process with us. We actually were purchasing some of her fish skins, some of the fish skins we use are Frances’s and they are probably 20 years old, they are very durable. I see why our ancestors used these for boots and bags, because they are so strong.” 

Typically, the Alutiiq Angels use silver, pink and king salmon. They love the look of silver because they are thicker skins, pinks are thinner and therefore easier to soak with dye, while the kings have the largest surface area. They process the skins first by fileting, and then scraping all the fat, meat and membranes off while trying not to rip the skin. 

“It’s kind of a way — for me — of reconnecting with your culture, as Native people, learning about the past and maintaining traditions, but also putting our own unique spin as individual people on it and coming up with new ways of doing things,” Christine Babic said. “Bridging that gap between tradition and contemporary.”

A glimpse of the Alutiiq Angel’s jewelry making process. Photo by Jane Spencer/For the Cordova Times
A glimpse of the Alutiiq Angel’s jewelry making process. Photo by Jane Spencer/For the Cordova Times

The late Diana Massolini was a talented beader who used to teach classes at Prince William Sound Community College. 

“Diana was the first person I took a beading class from. I think about all the people who inspired me, Diana was something else with her beadwork. I miss her all the time, I think about her a lot,” Mary Babic said very warmly.

Not only do the earrings of Alutiiq Angels reflect their Native cultural values and traditions, the place they call home, but also the Cordovans who inspired or taught them in some way. 

“We are so grateful to all of our customers, really we are so grateful. It allows us to keep doing what we love doing,” McDaniel said. 

Mary Babic, nodding in agreement, said, “Utilizing what resource that is plentiful and that is in our cultural background as well.”

Alutiiq Angels earrings can be purchased on Instagram Monday through Saturday. They will try to increase posts for holiday shopping. Locally, they will have a table for the Sobriety Celebration and periodic drops at the Net Loft.