ña ñ’íit’iisk’w | focus

Tanning Fish Skin

Tanning Fish Skin
The packaging of our soul food
By Peter Williams (YUP’IK)
Lettter T

he sacredness of salmon was not lost on me as a child; having respect for the life that sustains us was instilled into my worldview at a very young age when I first attended fish camp. However, the divinity of dry fish did not bless me until I returned to my father’s village of Akiak in the year 2006. As I sat chewing and pulling off a chunk of dark amber arid flesh with my canines, the abundance of flavors that stewed from our generational, cultural traditions was more than enough to make a foodie fall in love. The more you eat it, the more the savory mystery unfolds. When I was immersed in unlocking its hidden treasures, the faint bitterness of burnt wood stung the tip of my tongue as I attempted to consume all the oil off the skin. The cells in my body awakened, fingers anointed with lavish grease and the aroma of smoked fish.

I had just begun to work with skins, and there was something about the salmon that inspired me to incorporate it into art. During my visit, my family and I saved the skins of our dry fish so I could try to tan and work with them. My Uncle Mike would sit in his office at the end of the kitchen table, adjacent to the CB radio and landline, and break into laughter. I asked my relatives, who were unaware of my intentions to source art material, whether I could keep the skin of their salmon. Their wonder at my strange request translated into confused looks before I explained that I wanted to sew something out of it. Uncle Mike’s electric laugh filled the room after saying, “Peter is going to be sitting there eating his hat!”

I never tanned anything before. According to a few books, the smoking and drying were adequate to preserve the skin. After scraping the remaining meat from the skins for added measure, my roommate and I peed in a coffee can and soaked the skin in it for a few days to achieve a urine tan. Perhaps the smoke masked the smell. However, as long as the skin wasn’t wet, it is impossible to know how it was cured. Four years later, I would learn how to tan fur through relatively boring Western methodologies while managing the Sitka Tribal Tannery. Recently I began working with fish skin again and researching traditional ways of converting it into leather.

Information about traditional fish skin sewing and tanning techniques is available almost exclusively in ethnographic museums and anthropological documents sourcing knowledge from Indigenous communities. Yet, the creative control, voice, and the majority audience for these resources are not Alaska Natives, with the exception of an article by Nadia Jackinsky-Sethi (Alutiiq), Fish Skin as a Textile Material in Alaska Native Cultures.

Karen McIntyre (Yup’ik) created these wild Alaskan salmon fish skin earrings with orange Czech square-faceted glass beads, grey Czech beads, Japanese glass beads, and Red Sea coral round beads with sterling silver hooks.
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Nadia about how that article came to be. “I love writing about our arts because we’re often missing from the story of art history. When I was working as the curator at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, I had the amazing privilege to get to work with one of the best collections of Alaska Native art in the state, if not in the world. In particular, the Sheldon Jackson Museum holds an incredible collection of fish skin, such as fish skin bags, parkas, boots and these really drew me in. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to bring artists in to study from the collections, thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian, and our grant program focused on artists working with gut and fish skins.

Leaning into the camera over Zoom, I said: “Trying to describe my relationship with the Sheldon Jackson Museum, which I don’t want to call that complex because it’s quite simple, but it does have multi-layered emotions. And some of those being that it is a museum that has inspired me and supported me through my artistic career, and it’s also a museum that still kind of honors and represents a man who was involved in the systematic genocide of Alaska Native people and forced assimilation. That perspective of this history doesn’t seem to be represented. I was wondering if you had thoughts or insights about navigating these neo-liberal institutions and…doing some good within those systems?”

“That’s a huge question, Peter,” said Nadia. “Sheldon Jackson certainly has had a huge impact on the history of Alaska and how our people have been treated, educated and assimilated. So as an Alaska Native person, it’s very challenging to see Sheldon Jackson celebrated while knowing that many of his actions were harmful to our community members. It is the case, however, that nearly all museum collections of Indigenous material culture are built from a background where collectors came into our communities as part of a colonial agenda to assimilate and change them.”

“It is such a strange dichotomy that at the same time that Alaska Native cultures were considered to be backwards and heathen and in need of assimilation, our material culture was desired and admired by collectors. It is a complex history to untangle. We are in a really special time right now, where museums are going through a lot of self-reflection.”

When revitalizing cultural practices that have been disrupted by colonialism, such as working with fish skin, we must be in the driver’s seat.
Nadia pointed out how many museums are starting to make more space for Indigenous people to take back control of how they are represented while continuing to hold a duality. “I think museums are incredibly emotionally fraught spaces; they have all this negativity wrapped up around them. They’re also a place that holds our Ancestors. When you go into a collection storage room and you open up the drawers, you just feel that extreme love and presence of so many generations of people who were there before. That’s why I love museums, you get to be in the presence of all of these other generations who are there through the works of art. They connect the past with the present and the future.”

Personally, I believe that the Alaska Native lived experience can only be accurately conveyed by those with collective cultural memory. When revitalizing cultural practices that have been disrupted by colonialism, such as working with fish skin, we must be in the driver’s seat. This article highlights a few Alaska Native artists, in tandem with some of their work, methodologies, and recipes. Like others revitalizing this legacy art, these women learned from self-guided research, cultural sharing, experimentation, and teaching others. Out of respect for the years of labor they underwent to gain this knowledge, it is important to address that I am highlighting only a fraction of what they have to offer. You can learn more by purchasing their art or attending one of their classes.

Learning from and listening to these brilliant Alaska Native minds and cultural bearers was uplifting. There are many others whose work has impacted the cultural landscape of this legacy art practice. Audrey Armstrong (Koyukon Athabascan), Joel Isaak (Dena’ina Athabascan) and Marlene Nielsen (Yup’ik) are among the names that keep surfacing during my research.

tanning fish skin
Hanna Sholl
(Sugpiaq/Alutiiq, Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak)
Gently swaying back-and-forth in tandem with the movement of the crowded Sea-Tac airport light rail, the screeching sound of fast-moving metal coming to a stop reverberates across the miniature train. As the doors open, the momentum of travelers tumbles out. Like salmon making their way upstream- past rocks and rushing falls — we move in a packed group. I am flying to Colorado for the first meeting of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. A few other Alaska Natives are part of the inaugural cohort, and my eyes quickly scan the crowd in search of them. In the escalator, I notice a woman in front of me with a bag bearing the vibrant rings and spots of a harbor seal. “Hanna?” I ask, introducing myself. “Oh, Hey!” she replies.

We spend our layover in Seattle sharing food, stories and techniques on working with skin and gut. Hanna leverages a wide range of ancient and modern materials in various mediums: storytelling, dance, photography, painting, and carving, to name a few. “When I started becoming involved with my traditional song and dance, and then all of a sudden, I found that strength, this is who I am. So, from then on, I was like, I need to do more. As I delve deeper into culture — and it’s more than just culture; it’s the spirituality and the connection with the land and connection with the animals, and history and language — that strength was in the center of it. So, the more that I grew with that, the bigger that strength got.”

“I really believe that art can touch people, and I really believe that my purpose — one of the gifts that I was given, which now I have a responsibility to use for the right things — is my art. People respond to art very differently than a textbook or a dissertation, or an article. Not that people can’t respond to those, but it triggers a different part of your brain and gets you thinking different things.”

An example of this can be found on her website’s online exhibit of a traditional woven bird incorporating photographs of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women from Alaska. As Hanna says, “Each bead is a prayer for a missing sister, each portrait a memory of a daughter who was taken from this world too soon.” Alongside the artwork, a quote citing the Department of Justice (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Statistics “American Indians and Alaska Natives are two and a half times more likely to experience violent crimes and at least two times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes in comparison to all other ethnicities.” Her page also states, “One in three Native women is sexually assaulted during her life, and over 85% of these assaults are perpetrated by non-Natives.”

Hanna Sholl on preparing the skin:
When skinning the fish, use your hands and fingers to separate it from the meat, starting from the corner next to the head. Cut around the dorsal fin and pull the skin off; patch that hole later.

Use a spoon to flesh/scrape the skin, holding the bottom of the spoon to gently rub the meat from the skin. This helps protect and preserve the shiny part of the skin.

Always use cold water when: washing, rinsing and making solutions.

If using your sink, put something in it to catch the scales, to prevent the plugging of the drain.

Hanna uses blue Dawn dish soap because her Elders say so; the blue color cancels the yellow from the eggs.

Wash the skin with the tail end down and clean out the little pockets where the scales existed, which helps to get the oils out.

Hanna’s degreasing recipe:
Place salmon skin in a mason jar with ½ tbsp to 1 tbsp of salt per fish skin, depending on its size.

Add ¼ cup of acetone, ¼ cup of Isopropyl rubbing alcohol, and water.

Use a wooden chopstick or stick to stir the solution.

Keep the fish skin completely submerged in the solution for 24 hours.

Hanna explained that the solution could be kept chilled. “Make sure you label it; you’d be surprised what people consume out of the refrigerator.” The solution kills parasites and pulls the fish oil out of the skin. She explained how salmon skin is a fiber woven together, holding fat. Traditional methods of urine and tannin were used to remove those fats, which are later replaced by tannin and oil in the tanning process.

To learn more about Hanna’s work or attend one of her classes, follow her on @hannasholl_agasuuq or fineartsbyhannasholl.com.

Although Hanna is based in Kodiak, I attended one of her online fish skin tanning classes that entailed four parts spread out across a week. Hanna started to tan fish in 2013. I asked her how she obtained her tanning recipe. “It was a lot of research and a lot of trial and error and sheer willpower. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to learn something that wasn’t readily available, so my mind went to my children. If I don’t do my part to learn or try and learn, they don’t stand a chance because it’ll be more than just one or two generations gone, then they’ve got three generations gone. So, I think that their cultural awareness and ability to easily have access to culture really inspired that, particularly with the fish skin process.”

One of Hanna’s signature techniques helps retain the natural shine of the fish. “I like the way that when you leave the scales on, some of them fall off and some of them stay on and they hold that shine. I wanted to see and really show the true beauty of the fish that we were working with and fit into what I was making, because I don’t do a lot of garment style that requires them to be broken, so I have the ability to keep that shine on and it works well into what I make them into.”

When I asked Hanna who she learned this technique from, she said. “All of my students, anyone who worked with me on it because I learn something new every time I do that. My husband (Gage Sholl, Sugpiaq/Alutiiq, Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak), who is so patient with me. Definitely the provider of the salmon skin most of the time. My eldest son, who really taught me the process behind teaching it from start to finish to a child, from catching it, all the way to making something with it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of really strong mentors in this community and outside of the community that have encouraged and added tidbits of information that pushed me along the path.”

Corsets with tanned fish skin
above, Hanna Sholl: (Sugpiaq/Alutiiq, Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak) likes to retain the natural shine of the fish skin in her tanning method. PHOTO COURTESY OF HANNA SHOLL
One of many moments that stayed with me from the class was when Hanna spoke about the art form being disrupted by colonialism while simultaneously retaining the practice over a longer period because fish skin was not viewed as the most desirable material for clothing, so it “wasn’t stolen” like the other skins at the time of first contact.

“I’ve noticed a lot of women, Indigenous women, who have taken the time to learn salmon skin tanning, or invested in salmon skin and have really used it as a point to start mixing it into their crafts they’re selling. If you go through Instagram and you look at Alaska Native women, man, we’ve got it all over our Instagrams. It’s grown substantially from something that was in journals and in museums, to present day context that is actually helping families and feeding babies…it’s grown into this amazingly beautiful thing.”

Fish skin pieces by Sugpiaq/Alutiiq artist Hanna Sholl. PHOTOS COURTESY OF HANNA SHOLL.
Fish skin spread out on table
Tools
above, June Pardue: (Alutiiq/Sugpiaq) has made everything from mittens to corsets with tanned fish skin. PHOTO COURTESY OF JUNE PARDUE
tanning fish skin
June Pardue
(Alutiiq/Sugpiaq)
I met June through the Sheldon Jackson Museum Artist in Residence program. In the fall of 2019, we first connected over email, where she shared a few bark tanning recipes with me. At the bottom, she wrote, “BTW: you are an awesome young man – keep experimenting, practicing traditional ways, and sharing.” It made my day, and if you know June, that is what she does. She inspires and uplifts those around her with her devotion towards the cultural way of life.

About 25 years ago, she started experimenting with tanning and was struggling with it. “I was looking for someone to teach me and couldn’t find anyone. All I found were specimens of tanned salmon skin articles in museums.” She and her husband Charlie Pardue (Gwich’in Athabascan) were invited to live in Chalkyitsik village by David Salmon, who was in his 90s. While visiting him, they would ask about the old ways, and whether they used salmon skin and if it was tanned? “They made dog packs out of it and boots.” David did not know how to traditionally tan, but he remembered that they used willows.

That information began a new venture for Charlie and June as they started experimenting with boiling willows. Surely enough, it worked. Over the phone, June said, “I just love working with fish skins and I love working with nature. I’ve got some on the stove right now boiling… It’s in my blood to share. I’m a teacher by heart.”

tanning fish skin
June Pardue
(Alutiiq/Sugpiaq)
I met June through the Sheldon Jackson Museum Artist in Residence program. In the fall of 2019, we first connected over email, where she shared a few bark tanning recipes with me. At the bottom, she wrote, “BTW: you are an awesome young man – keep experimenting, practicing traditional ways, and sharing.” It made my day, and if you know June, that is what she does. She inspires and uplifts those around her with her devotion towards the cultural way of life.

About 25 years ago, she started experimenting with tanning and was struggling with it. “I was looking for someone to teach me and couldn’t find anyone. All I found were specimens of tanned salmon skin articles in museums.” She and her husband Charlie Pardue (Gwich’in Athabascan) were invited to live in Chalkyitsik village by David Salmon, who was in his 90s. While visiting him, they would ask about the old ways, and whether they used salmon skin and if it was tanned? “They made dog packs out of it and boots.” David did not know how to traditionally tan, but he remembered that they used willows.

That information began a new venture for Charlie and June as they started experimenting with boiling willows. Surely enough, it worked. Over the phone, June said, “I just love working with fish skins and I love working with nature. I’ve got some on the stove right now boiling… It’s in my blood to share. I’m a teacher by heart.”

Fish skin spread out on table
Tools
above, June Pardue: (Alutiiq/Sugpiaq) has made everything from mittens to corsets with tanned fish skin. PHOTO COURTESY OF JUNE PARDUE
June uses willow and alder bark to make liquid tannins that are used in tanning fish skins. This method takes anywhere from seven to twenty-one days, depending on the size and thickness of fish skins. She mostly makes garments from mittens, slippers, dance boots, to even a full-length dress. “I have made a fish skin jacket, which is now owned by the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and they have that in their permanent collection.” In the background, Charlie adds, “your corset.” “Oh, I made a corset. Yeah. That one was in a couple of fashion shows. The young ladies really enjoyed putting their stretchy pants on and putting on that corset and walking down that little ramp thing. I can’t even count how many baby boots, baby mukluks I’ve made.”

During the pandemic, June has been busy teaching classes online, from Canada, Italy, to London. Now that we are living in a vaccinated society, she is traveling to “Sandpoint Village and I’ll be teaching them the willow tan and bark tanning, and then from there, I go to Yakutat for two weeks and then down to Kake.” The Pardue’s schedule is filling up fast.

Traditional practices are no longer being talked about in the past tense…
I asked June if she had a message for future generations of Alaska Natives who might be interested in working with fish skin. She encouraged them to take advantage of the opportunities to utilize all the fish skin thrown away and learn how to turn it into leather. Also adding, “It’s so important for us to stay rooted to our traditions and our cultural ways and to practice our Native values, to love and care for one another. With us coming up with these ways to tan salmon skins, sharing is part of our culture and that’s what we want — to share knowledge and share food with one another. It’s not culture that we teach, but it’s what we live.”

Both Charlie and June have witnessed the impact of revitalization of traditional ways of life on communities. June says, “When something like that is brought back to life in a community, we witness the Elders getting involved with the younger generation.” Noting how traditional practices are no longer being talked about in the past tense, she adds, “it’s just so wonderful.”

If you are interested in having the Pardues come and teach, you can email [email protected] or follow @SalmonLeather.Lady and @AlutiiqFishSkins
tanning fish skin
Karen McIntyre
(Yup’ik)
As my cousin Karen drove me out to the end of the road to harvest hemlock bark, I asked her how she learned about this tanning recipe. “I learned about it online, and actually, I was teaching a basket-making class and one of the students shared a Chugach homepage they do for cultural learning.” Karen has had many teachers and enjoys the communal process of revitalization. “I learned from June Pardue the willow tanning method. I took a class from Janey Chang. She’s from British Columbia; she’s just a beautiful little soul too. And she learned a lot from the lady from Sweden and I don’t remember her name. I should remember because, you know, I’m doing it and I watched her video too.”

The Swedish woman is Lotta Rahme. I thought it was poetic that Karen couldn’t remember her name. The biography on the back of Rahme’s book reads, “Much of her knowledge has been acquired directly from Inuit, Native American, Sami and Ainu women.” Rahme was building a career off the knowledge of many Indigenous cultures without recognizing the individuals who taught her — perpetuating a long-standing history of White folks deriving knowledge for economic and social capital, while leaving the women of color, whose knowledge they profited from, nameless and faceless.

Audrey Armstrong (Athabascan) is Karen’s primary teacher. “She’s the lady who taught me how and learned at the Sheldon Jackson Museum through their summer programs. And their artist residency programs, and she came out and taught a basket class. And that’s how I really got addicted to it, is learning through her. And then I was so fortunate that I got to work at the museum too for four years. And just get to learn all the artifacts that were made out of fish skin after I became a fish skinner. So I became a fish skinner before I started working there, so it was more dear to me that way.”

As we leave the parking lot and enter the trailhead, Karen comments on the abundance of lush green plant growth. I asked if she heard of bog tanning. “You mentioned that in a text and I had never heard of it.” “I’m thinking of trying it,” I said. “Just scoop up some of the water from the muskeg hole. After I have that in there for a few days, then just bring the skin right to the muskeg hole and put it in.” “That’s a wonderful idea,” Karen continued as the crunch of gravel under our feet followed us up the hill. “So I’m just looking for something fresh that has fallen down,” she stops in her red knitted hat, looking up at a tall hemlock tree.

“There’s some already coming off.” She stretches out, grabbing a strip of bark that is hanging off the side of the tree trunk, as if it was a loose shingle. “Just gently take it,” she remarks, placing it in a gallon ziplock bag, “If you want to do some tanning in the winter, then you will freeze this. And then you’ll make tea.” Moving to another side of the tree, she grabs another piece “you can feel where it wants to come off.” I asked, “so you’re harvesting what’s kinda falling off, so you don’t hurt the tree?” “Yeah, and you can even look around on the ground. See that giant piece right there? We can harvest that.”

right, Karen Mcintyre: White halibut fish skin dyed sapphire blue basket by Karen McIntyre, with a wild Alaska salmon fish skin belly rim with pearls, Czech glass crystal beads, Japanese glass beads, and white dentallium shells.

below, Karen Mcintyre: Wild Alaskan king salmon fish skin basket with abalone shell button and bead, aquamarine gemstone, hone, green glass, and black crystals by Karen McIntyre.

Wild Alaskan king salmon fish skin basket
above, Karen Mcintyre: Wild Alaskan king salmon fish skin basket with abalone shell button and bead, aquamarine gemstone, hone, green glass, and black crystals by Karen McIntyre.
Fish skin dyed sapphire blue basket
above, Karen Mcintyre: White halibut fish skin dyed sapphire blue basket by Karen McIntyre, with a wild Alaska salmon fish skin belly rim with pearls, Czech glass crystal beads, Japanese glass beads, and white dentallium shells.
Earrings by Karen are salmon and white halibut skin
above, Karen Mcintyre: Earrings by Karen are salmon and white halibut skin with Czech and Japanese glass crystals and beads.
Black halibut fish-skin rimmed basket with red sea coral
above, Karen Mcintyre: Black halibut fish-skin rimmed basket with red sea coral and light blue chalcedony by Karen McIntyre.

left, Karen Mcintyre: Earrings by Karen are salmon and white halibut skin with Czech and Japanese glass crystals and beads. PHOTOS COURTESY OF KAREN MCINTYRE

above, Karen Mcintyre: Black halibut fish-skin rimmed basket with red sea coral and light blue chalcedony by Karen McIntyre. PHOTOS COURTESY OF KAREN MCINTYRE
We move past some berry bushes. “When I’m by myself, I’m often talking to the tree and saying thank you tree for giving me what I’m taking from you. I’ll probably move onto another tree now cause I feel like I took enough from this tree. You know?” As she holds up a crinkly plastic bag of bark. “Look how much we have already. So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to bust this all up. Then we boil it… with beautiful fresh spring water. We don’t ever want to use water from the faucet that has been treated with fluoride and…” — waving her hand in the air as if shooing a fly away — ”you know, whatever they treat our drinking waters with.”

As we make our way further along the trail, I stop by some muskeg holes and sink glass bottles into the muck. Air bubbles rumble to the surface as light brown water rushes in. I tighten the caps and put them in my backpack. Karen stands up after picking Ayuq (Labrador Tea).

“Ummm, we’re going to have some tea now!” she laughs, as she holds her hands in the air and dances to the electronic beats radiating from her cell phone.

“So, why did you put on the music, Cuz?”

“Oh, oh yeah, Madonna, you know the bears mostly don’t care for her. If they knew her, like I did though, they would love her.”

An old hemlock that blew down over the winter lies next to the trail. As we harvest bark from it, I say, “so earlier, you talked about your appreciation for various people who have kept this knowledge and practice alive. But how do you think it would be if you learned from your Aunty or your Mom?”

“That’s always going to be a big treasurer inside of my heart, to teach our people too and keep it going.”
“Oh, it would be way more special if I learned from my own Ancestors. You know it would be a lot more meaningful. I’m really grateful that I am learning and I feel like I am doing it better and I like my product more. So I feel ready to teach it now and I can not wait to teach it to my granddaughter. It’s so rewarding to teach… We are all taught to love one another in the Yup’ik culture. And so, sharing the knowledge with non-Native folks is okay with me too. I feel like it’s something that all of our Ancestors did at one time or another. We all wore hides of some sort. So I’m equally happy to share the knowledge, but of course, it’s always going to be special when you can teach an Indigenous person who does not know something they may have lost. That’s always going to be a big treasurer inside of my heart, to teach our people too and keep it going.”

While tanning, Karen talked about the importance of Christ in her life, how grateful she is for “the ultimate self-help book.” She expressed some of the challenges she faces as an Indigenous woman “having to work two or three times as hard to prove myself to people that I am just as good.” My cousin’s words echoing a dark reality continue to ring in my ears “My third leading cause of death is murder.”

Karen is a natural teacher, a bundle of energy that is quick to laugh with a desire to learn constantly. “As soon as I get enough pieces, I’m probably going to try and make some little wallets.” Karne also makes stunning beaded jewelry.

Karen Mcintyre on Hemlock tanning:
⅔ pot full of crushed bark; use stainless steel, not aluminum.

Fill with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for four hours with a bit of salt. Adding “God’s clean water untouched by man” when simmering as it evaporates.

Store solution in plastic or glass containers in a cool place or even the freezer.

Mix the first batch with a small amount of tea and mostly clean water. “Put it in the fridge and shake every time you get in there for a drink or food.”

After three days, pour out and make a stronger tea.

Put back in the fridge for three more days. Then make the solution full strength.

To attend one of Karen’s classes and to see her beautiful art follow @creativenativeak

Peter Williams (Yup’ik) is a culture bearer, artist and educator originally from Akiak. He completed artist residencies at Santa Fe Art Institute and Institute of American Indian Arts, and has guest-lectured and/or taught skin sewing at Yale University, Stanford University, Portland Art Museum, and Alaska State Museum. His art has been shown at museums and galleries across North America. Williams received a Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship, a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award and a 2021 NDN Collective Radical Imagination Grant.