Tlingit artist Jeremiah James always knew he wasn’t meant for the 9-5 working life. What he didn’t know is that hunting could be a part of how he makes his living.
James creates vests, hats, blankets and more out of seal and sea otter fur.
“I can finally get paid to go hunting,” he said.
He first got into skin sewing after taking a class from Valdez Native Tribe President John Boone, who came to Yakutat with the Harbor Seal Commission in 2010.
“All I ever did before that was just shoot them and eat them — give them to my uncles, give them to people,” James said.
As an artist, he’d been carving up to that point. He’d also been commercial fishing since he was 15.
When he took a class from Boone, James hand-sewed a headband. Then he started talking to Boone about sewing and selling his work to other Alaska Natives.
In 2013, Sealaska Heritage Institute flew James to Juneau to take a class from Louise Kadinger, through their Sustainable Arts Program, on skin sewing with a machine. Over the few days of the class, he sewed most of the 15 hides he’d brought.
“That changed everything for what I’m doing now,” he said. “I’ve made five sea otter blankets now, a few hundred hats, a whole bunch of vests and scarves.” He hopes to soon begin making purses and mukluks (boots).
Boone, James said, “was my mentor in all of it.”
He showed him how to skin a sea otter the way he does it; they sat together at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention, and Boone let James get a feel for what it’s like to sell his work.
Now, James sends his work to Anchorage, Juneau, and other places. He also teaches classes for SHI. He’s taught hand sewing in Sitka, Ketchikan, Anchorage, Yakutat, Juneau and Wrangell.
He estimates he hunts between 50 and 60 seals a year, and somewhere around 80 sea otters.
He’s hunted around Disenchantment Bay and Yakutat Bay, but may be finding new hunting spots soon — he’s planning on moving to Juneau this winter, he said.
One of the most challenging aspects of what he does is finding someone to tan something, he said. He uses tanners both in Anchorage and in Sitka, but on some, the fur is “slipping” — coming off the skin.
“This is the biggest setback that I’ve been running into lately,” he said.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act limits the people who are allowed to touch a protected animal until it is “substantially altered,” meaning there aren’t many people who are able to do it.
Like fishing, his art has highs and lows, James said. It also requires an investment – just this February, he spent $7,000 on tanning.
Sometimes he trades for other kinds of furs. Right now he has a wolf and a wolverine pelt from Wrangell; he traded them for one of his hats. He also trades for fox. One of the vests he is working on is his daughter’s, made with the skin of a seal she hunted when she was nine years old.
His favorite fur to work with is probably sea otter, he said.
“Go in stages,” he said, asked for advice about skin sewing. “Don’t try doing too much at once, and don’t quit your day job. That goes for most art in general. It’s a lifestyle instead of a job.”
“You have to want to do it,” he said of his art. “Just like anything else in the world. If you don’t want to, you’re not going to get far.”
• Contact CCW staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at email@example.com