Sugpiaq elder leads Cordova artists to make bear gut parka

Artist Joyce Kompkoff Peterson models the finished bear gut rain jacket, with beautiful fur trim details. Photo courtesy of Alexis Sallee/for The Cordova Times

Under the guidance of teacher June Pardue, a group of Native artists came together to make a traditional Sugpiaq bear gut raincoat. Chugachmiut Heritage Preservation funded the project, which is now displayed at their office in Anchorage.

Chugachmiut wanted to purchase a gut parka for small museum in their office, but there was no one in our region who knew how to make them. They decided to take the money they were going to spend on buying a gut parka to hold a class to not only make one, but to teach regional artists how to make one so the skill can be revived again in the different regional villages.

Artists Joyce Kompkoff Peterson and Dawn Randazzo displaying the bear gut parka with seal mammal fur trim details. Photo courtesy of Alexis Sallee/for The Cordova Times

Dawn Randazzo, assistant archivist at Chugachmiut, chose Pardue to teach the group and assembled this group of artists.

Pardue is Sugpiaq, from Old Harbor, and she’s an “expert artist, and has experience sewing with intestines,” Randazzo said, adding, “she is also an amazing teacher.”

The goal of the project was to try to create an entirely Sugpiaq group to make the raincoat. Randazzo said she “tried to select people that had different skills that would work together to best revitalize this.”

A close up of some of the stitching techniques used for the bear gut parka, which uses beach rye grass and sinew. Photo courtesy of Alexis Sallee/for The Cordova Times

The significance of this raincoat is evident to everyone involved in the creation of it.

“Over 100 years since the women of this region sewed a gut parka,” said Brooke Mallory, deputy director for Native Village of Eyak.

Echoing the sentiment is Diane Selanoff, a Sugpiaq elder from Port Graham, who also helped sew and design the raincoat.

“What we’ve done here the past couple weeks, is we made history that has been denied from this history for many years,” Selanoff said.

This particular bear gut raincoat was made from the intestines of two bears; a brown bear and a black bear.

“The black bear was really nice to work with because it was a young early in the season bear, it was a young bear so there was hardly any odor to it,” Pardue said

Because the parka will be featured in the showroom, the group decided to make it more decorative with embellishments and fur trim.

Diane Selanoff sewing the Sugpiaq bear gut raincoat together, with decorative fur trim for the jacket resting on her shoulder. Trim is made from seal and sea lion and features shells and red beads. A camera rests on the table documenting the process. Photo by Jane Spencer/for The Cordova Times

“Squares of seal and sea lion. Seal has seashells, with sea otter fur as the bottom piece, or flare as I like to call it,” Mallory said.

Pardue added, “Culture is not stagnant, it changes with time. We have here, our ladies using their artistic license to come up with a really nice looking trim.”

It takes three bears to make a full gut raincoat, which would include a hood.

“It was our hope to make a complete waterproof parka, but we realized as we went along, we didn’t have enough material to do the hood,” Selanoff said. “So, it was at that time we made a collective decision to make this more of a ceremonial-type parka. So we embellished it with furs from this area, it’s all marine mammals, and its sea otter, sea lion and seal. The shells are resemblant of the shells we’d gather here in Prince William Sound, like butter clams. So, we use those because they are from the area too, but it was also decided that the wrist cuffs have red bead embellishments on them; the red is significant of the blood lines of this traditional parka.”

The making of a bear gut raincoat takes a lot of time and involves many steps, and each step has its own process. Beach rye grass was used when sewing the intestine pieces of the parka together.

Harvested beach grasses for the bear gut raincoat. Photo by Jane Spencer/for The Cordova Times

“It’s not like you can just go grab grasses from the beach, there’s a process to that too in preparation for being sewn in. It has to be the softest most pliable part of the grass,” Selanoff continued. “Each day, the beginning of the day was preparing the grass to be used for the gut parka and taking out the hard parts. The hard part of the grass is considered a weak spot because when it moves it can break and can cause fault to the jacket itself. And in sewing it, there’s a different method of sewing the waterproof stitch as opposed to the fancy stitch.”

In addition to the beach grass, sinew is used, which comes from the back of a deer, to allow for movement and flexibility. Making a bear gut parka involves durability and also flexibility of the materials, because the materials need to get wet but also be able to dry out. “When the water hits the natural materials, it will expand, and has a tendency to contract when its dry” Selanoff said.

Pardue further explains the importance of the thread material; “If all their gut raincoats were made out of cotton thread, that cotton thread doesn’t have stretch or shrinking along with the gut. That’s why we use sinew, because it’ll expand and shrink.”

Having a gut raincoat to withstand the unforgiving weather in Alaska was essential.

Beach grass soaking, and processed bear intestine that will soon be used in the bear gut raincoat. Photo by Jane Spencer/for The Cordova Times

“When a man needed a kayak, it was the wife who did the sewing, she did the inspection, she would crawl inside and look at all the stitches,” You know, she wanted her husband to come back. It was like that with the gut raincoat, she wanted him to survive out at sea. The maidens, the girls waiting to get married would have to practice this, it was life or death,” Pardue said.

Nowadays, raincoats come in many different materials and styles, but back then gathering materials, creating patterns and the process of making a raincoat took time and skill. It was more than just using the available materials, it took a form of engineering to improve upon their natural elements.

Pardue says, “not only how to use the grass but how to prepare it for sewing with, there’s a part of the beach grass that needs to be thrown out and stripped away. They depend on the moisture from the grass to dampen the seal gut as they sew it, because if they over water it becomes unmanageable to sew with, it has to be just right.”

The grasses are used for stitching, but the intestines, which make up the material of the parka, also require a time-consuming process to prepare.

Drying the bear intestines in the sun, one of the many time consuming steps in making the bear gut parka. Photo courtesy of Alexis Sallee/for The Cordova Times

“Three layers of intestine, you scrap the outer side, after its flushed out, and then you take and you scrape the inside and then you turn the gut inside out,” Pardue said. “It gets blown up, tied off one end, and it was all the full length of several tables. We took those buckets and filled them up with water, you need to submerge it in water, to make sure there are no holes in the intestine.”

While clothing is made with different shapes sewn together, the gut parka is made entirely different because of the naturally long pieces of the intestines, stitched together on the long sides of the intestines.

“If you’re making a coat at a factory, you have your arm section, your zipper section, your back section, etc.,” Selanoff explains pattern making with the intestines is different than cutting pieces of fabric to create a pattern. “In the making of this parka, it was made with one continuous, the intestine was continuous, so there would be no breaks and that also provided more durability.”

Intestines are generally long and narrow pieces, but the small and large intestines vary with oiliness and durability. Those different textures of the intestines are used strategically in areas that may require more mobility or an area that needs thicker more durable parts.

“The small intestine held more fat, so it was more oily, but it did dry and we noticed in the parka the large intestine was used where there was a lot of stress and moveability, so it’s in the arms and elbows,” Selanoff explains. “If you’re moving it’s stronger and it has more oils, so it has more flexibility.”

A full parka includes the hood, and would attach onto the kayak, making the person almost completely sealed off from the rain.

Joyce Peterson models the jacket, so the group can check the fit of their bear gut raincoat. Photo by Jane Spencer/for The Cordova Times

“Once the man gets into his kayak, he’ll sit down and he’ll have his garment pulled up so that when he sat down, he was able to pull all around. There’s a sinch, and a little groove in the hatch where they sinch the raincoat over, making them one with the kayak. The hood is large enough to give them room to move. If they were out at sea hunting. The hood had to fit over their hunting hats, the visors, the hood would have to fit over that as well,” Pardue said.

She continues on, “when you think about a seal, put yourself inside the animal and you’re part of the intestines. The intestines have a lining outside and a lining inside and our god created the intestines for nothing to seep out into the body of the creatures, and nothing to seep into the gut. So, it makes sense that the Sugpiat people would make a rain jacket out of that.”

“Putting the pattern together which is a skill in itself to make a pattern for an individual,” Pardue said. “There’s a lot of history that goes into that and just itself by each process to get to that point and these past couple weeks we’ve made history that hasn’t been made.”

Selanoff is proud of the work they put in, and praises Pardue, “the group that Chugachmiut put together is a group of artists from this region who can carry that tradition on and forward. And it wasn’t just a small undertaking, each thing she taught us was a lesson in itself that could take time to understand.”

Sewing the parka with rye beach grass and sinew, along the edges of the bear intestine. Photo courtesy of Alexis Sallee/for The Cordova Times

Alaska photographer and filmmaker Alexis Sallee documented the group and the project, taking videos and photographs.

“Dawn and Andrea from Chugachmiut Heritage Preservation Department were looking for an Alaska Native filmmaker — there aren’t a lot of us — to document the process of the bear gut raincoat and traditional qayaq (kayak) build — which we are filming next month. It was really amazing to witness and spend time with this group for two weeks, it was such a collaboration as they were discovering together how it would all come together and was really meaningful to everyone involved,” Sallee added. “Also the community in Cordova is super cool, it was my first time there even though I grew up in Alaska.”

Once finished, the documentary will be available on chugachmiutheritagearchive.org.

The artists pose in front of their finished bear gut parka. From left to right: Joyce Kompkoff Peterson, Brooke Mallory, teacher June Pardue, Diane Selanoff, Dawn Randazzo and Andrea Floersheimer. Photo courtesy of Alexis Sallee/for The Cordova Times