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Dealing with various weather conditions is a serious matter in Alaska. Coastal Native Alaskans have been surviving in severe environments for millennia. Between the heat of the summer and the freezing cold of the winter is that transitional season when it rains. Raincoats were fashioned out of bird skins and fish skins but it is the gut skin parka that became the universally adopted garment along the coast of Alaska. Differing preparation, stitching and styling methods distinguish the many coastal villages and are expressed in embellishments and details that define the region, the culture and the function of these beautiful outer garments.
Gut parkas are made of the intestines from sea mammals and bear, and are worn during kayak hunting expeditions, tide pool collecting, dancing and celebration rituals. Embellishment and detailing of these garments are achieved using the wealth of hair, fur, leather, yarn, cloth, feathers, beaks and claws that are either salvaged from hunting and gathering practiced in each region or acquired through trade.
This paper will look at parka construction, embellishment and detailing from several island cultures in Alaska. To the north we will examine “winter-prepared” ugruk gut parkas produced by the Siberian Yupik people from St. Lawrence Island that incorporate feathers, beaks and skin tabs. Traveling south to the Pribilof Islands, home of the Aleut, we will see their wonderful parka constructed of sea lion intestine and embellished with hair, fur, and highly evolved embroidery using the finest fibers of caribou hair on dyed esophagus. Another Island, also in the Bering Sea, is Nunivak Island where the Yupik people developed a style of gut parka made with “summer-prepared” seal gut stitched with sinew and grass and embellished with yarn, beads and fur. A study of the Alutiiq people of Kodiak Island completes this overview of island peoples’ parka construction. All the parkas were made for either practical or spiritual purposes. All used the same basic materials, but in distinctively different ways with embellishment and detailing unique to their culture. These distinctive people have lived on the water and survived many generations of life in severe climate conditions, full of abundance and wealth to those who treated it with respect and care.