Every culture has a story of its history, a tale of how that
culture was created, thrived, survived challenges, overcame hardships.
Many cultures, over time, have preserved such tales through written
documentation, writing down such occurrences so future generations
can understand what happened and how. For cultures that embrace
oral history, different approaches are taken.
need to try to remember all of our history. Were traditionally
an oral culture so instead of writing, this was another way to remember
our stories, Letha Chimegalrea Simon, a Yupik Native
from Bethel, said of the creation of traditional fur parkas.
the Yupik culture, parkas are much more than necessary tools
for survival in the cold climate of Alaska; they are also pieces
of art that tell stories about the past. Simon explained that each
element on a parka certain stitches, tassels, specific strips
of fur, beads and shapes of hide used represent specific
parts of an historic story.
the practice of creating these wearable pieces of history have changed
in modern times they are still made but often more
contemporary, she said the concept behind the tradition
is one she and others hope will continue to be passed on to future
is important to know and understand these stories, she said.
In Western society, everyone is forced to learn the history
of Columbus because it is part of the countrys history, how
the country was formed. But are our (Native) cultures required to
learn the history of these tribes and their wars and survivors?
who moved temporarily to Fairbanks to attend the University of Alaska
Fairbanks in the early 1980s and returned permanently after getting
married in 1991, admitted it is difficult to remember the many details
sewn into her own traditional parka, made by her mother and grandmother
and completed in 1984.
cant believe its that old, she said with a laugh.
she needs a memory refresher, she calls her mother in Bethel. Creating
the piece was a family affair, which is typical, and similar parkas
were made for Simons mother and older sister at the same time
hers was created. She said the design of parkas traditionally reflects
a specific family or community.
can tell what area or family people are from by the design,
is a hierarchy of details in this design concept: Parkas from a
specific area have a set of design elements, such as certain tassels
and overall layout of the fur. Certain families within that area
may add more specific details to that design, such as an extra tassel
or leather strap on the hood, and then each individual can add more
minute details, such as a design pattern on a strip of leather.
chose this geometric pattern (on a strip of calf skin near the bottom
of the parka) to be different from my older sister, Simon
said, admitting she later regretted the choice. Hers
has a bunch of different designs here, like flowers and little rabbit
figures. I later thought I should have chosen something different.
or no, Simons parka is undoubtedly a thing of beauty. It includes
22 mink furs and bits of reindeer, land otter, wolverine and wolf,
along with ornate stitching and carefully positioned leather and
fur tassels. The hands of three women mother Elsie Chimegalrea,
grandmother Anna Hedlund Alexi of Napakiak, and a friend who helped
with some of the borders created it using furs Simons
is hard to estimate how long it took to complete the work because
you work on it in between other things, when theres
time, Simon said, but the detailed stitching and patterns
suggest it took a lot of concentration and surely many, many
work has been appreciated and recognized by learned eyes over the
years: Simon has entered and won a few Parka Parade competitions,
held each March during the Winter Carnival (the annual Parka Parade
contest will be held at 2 p.m. today at the Centennial Center for
the Arts in Pioneer Park), as well as competitions held at the World
Eskimo-Indian Olympics each summer. Despite having to give a quick
call to her mother to refresh some details, Simon was more than
happy to share the story of her parka. But to understand the story,
one must first understand the parka itself.
dad trapped the fur for this and my mom and sisters. It is
mostly mink, Simon explained, smoothing out some folds created
from too much time in the closet.
main part of the parka is mink, but the borders and tassels contain
other furs. The hood has a ruff made of beaver, with strips of wolverine
and wolf. The cuffs on the sleeves have a strip of white near the
wrist made of calf skin; below that is another strip of mink, then
land otter and wolverine. The bottom border is also land otter and
wolverine, and above is a strip of white calf skin with black calf
skin triangles, or geometric shapes, stitched in a delicate pattern,
with strips of black near the top and bottom of the design.
one of these black triangle pieces was stitched in individually,
Simon noted, pointing to the inside of the parka to show the delicate
total of 32 tassels adorn the parka, four on each arm and two six-tassel
rows on the front and the back. These are made of mink, with wolverine
near the top and strips of white calf skin and seal skin around
each. Black reindeer hair is used to make designs within the white
strips, and strips of red yarn-like material adorn each tassel.
are also small strips of white calf skin leather under each arm
and on each shoulder, and two leather tassels with fur on the end
one wolverine, one wolf hanging from the back of the
hood. These are unique to Simons family, she explained.
of these various details represents part of the story the parka
is meant to tell.
story of war
her head while trying to remember the story, Simon recounted what
shes been told about her parkas story. It begins with
a war between two Native groups or tribes. It is a viscous battle,
with one tribe killing all but one of the warriors from the enemy
others said, Lets not kill him, so he can return to
his village and tell the story of what happened, Simon
the lone warrior would not get off too easily. His enemies tortured
him first, by force feeding him reindeer fat until his stomach was
full and bloating. Then they slipped his bow over him so the string
put pressure on his expanding stomach. He was then released, sent
to struggle home to tell his people of the battle and the misery,
continually burping and gagging on the reindeer fat as he walked.
made it home, back to his village, to tell his tale, Simon
how does is this story told on the parka? First, the tassels represent
the arrows fired during the battle. The white strips across each
tassel represent the bows, and the red strings depict the deaths
during the battle. The white strips on the shoulders and underarms
represent the bow pushed over the warrior and the discomfort on
his belly. The calf skin strip along the bottom, with the black-and-white
geometric design, represents the warrior and his tribes ability
the tradition alive
Simon did not get to assist in the creation of her parka
she was away at college at the time she made sure she learned
the stitching skill and garnered some practice. Using squirrel skins
her father trapped, she decided to start small and create
a doll-sized parka with a bit less detail than her own would have.
At the time she had a young cousin, about 4 years old, and decided
to make a little bigger and give it to her. Knowing
the squirrel skins were not as sturdy as mink and others, she warned
her cousin to take care.
told her not to be too hard on it, because squirrel is not very
strong, she recalled with a laugh.
few years later she made another small parka for her niece, who
was around 2 years old at the time.
if her own daughters, ages 15 and 13, would also learn the skills
and receive their own parkas, Simon said it is on the agenda but
has not yet materialized.
at the thinking stage of that, but it is a goal. I certainly want
them to partake in the tradition, she said. It is a
project on the burner.
emphasized again how important it is to continue making parkas and
telling stories, and ensuring younger generations know of the tradition
definitely something people need to be aware of. It involves so
much history, and we should keep the tradition alive, she
such as WEIO and todays Parka Parade help with that effort.
Simon said such gatherings serve as reminders of the stories, practices
and tremendous skill involved in each culture, as well as a chance
to show off their beautiful creations.
features editor Erica Goff at 459-7523.