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Moccasin sewing class aims to revive traditional art form

Posted: January 6, 2013 - 1:12am
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Kelli Hughes, 23, attaches a strip of deer hide to seal skin during a three-day moccasin-making workshop at Sealaska this weekend.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Kelli Hughes, 23, attaches a strip of deer hide to seal skin during a three-day moccasin-making workshop at Sealaska this weekend.

Maggie Tompkins’ grandmother, a Tlingit woman from Klukwan, began wearing moccasins long ago after she stepped barefoot on a frog.

The moccasins were adorned with bead work that now sits inside Tompkins’ moccasin-making kit, almost ready to adorn a new pair.

“I’m recycling,” Tompkins said, as she began hand-sewing her own pair of moccasins. “I don’t know how to do bead work.”

Tompkins, 47, and her 27-year-old daughter Jessica Liska, were some of the 15 to 20 women who attended a Sealaska Heritage Institute workshop this weekend to learn how to make moccasins out of seal skin.

It’s part of an ongoing cultural heritage project to help revive traditional art forms that are in danger of being lost, according to SHI President Rosita Worl.

“The idea here is to reintroduce traditional arts that were in danger, it looked like they may be lost,” Worl said in an interview, adding “A lot of our people forgot the skills associated with the use of seal skin and sea otter, and that’s why we have to be teaching that.”

This is the fourth moccasin-making workshop the organization has held since 2010, and Worl estimates about 90 people so far have learned how to sew moccasins through the program.

Emily Arne, 34, began learning how to make the footwear with her aunt a few years ago, but her aunt stopped when her eyesight began to go.

“I thought maybe I should learn because nobody else will make them in the family anymore,” Arne said, noting that it’s a skill she wants to one day pass down to her 17-month-old daughter, Raven.

Heather Valleskey, 27, echoed those sentiments, saying she wants to teach her three children how to make them. She said one of the main reasons she moved from Anchorage to Juneau was to get back in touch with her heritage.

“This is the beginning,” she said.

The moccasin-making workshop is actually the latest spin on the Sealaska project. It originally began in 2003 with teaching basket weaving in Hoonah, and it has developed from there. The next development will be teaching bead work consistent with the aesthetics of Northwest Coast art.

Hosting the three-day workshops is not cheap. Worl says it costs about $10,000 to put on, and it is funded internally by SHI. Participants pay $50 to take the workshop, which helps pay for some of the instructor time and cost of materials.

SHI purchases the seal skin used in the workshop from individual hunters in Southeast for about $350 per hide. That includes what it costs to tan the hides at a Sitka cannery.

About three to four moccasins can be made from each hide. Only Natives can use the seal skin since it’s protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Non-Natives attending the class sewed moccasins out of imitation furs.

Worl says she hopes re-teaching Native peoples skills like making moccasins will not only help with cultural sustainability, but economic sustainability as well.

Well-made moccasins can sell for about $180 to $200, she said.

“It’s part of this whole scenario of trying to sustain our culture as well as provide a source of income for our craftspeople,” Worl said.

Native elder Stephanie Guanzon attended the workshop with one of her daughters and granddaughters so all three generations could learn how to sew moccasins together.

She didn’t grow up wearing them, and sewing wasn’t that popular in her youth, Guanzon remembers.

Guanzon’s granddaughter, 25-year-old Davina Cole, said she had tried making moccasins before but has never finished a pair because “I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

“We never got to grow up learning it, so we’re learning it now,” Cole said.

Celebration — the biennial festival that showcases Southeast Alaska Native traditions and customs — has renewed her and others’ interests in regalia making, she and her family said.

“I want to learn as much as possible,” said Guanzon’s daughter, Semona Lundy, 54.

“Doing it together makes it really nice,” Guanzon said, as the three sat together at the workshop table. “It’s a good feeling.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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