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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Traditional Native Parkas Are More Than Garments
by Erica Goff - The Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner
credits: photos by Erica Goff

Made mostly of mink, this parka has wolf, wolverine, reindeer, calf and land otter fur as well as seal skin.FAIRBANKS — 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.

“We need to try to remember all of our history. We’re traditionally an oral culture so instead of writing, this was another way to remember our stories,” Letha Chimegalrea Simon, a Yup’ik Native from Bethel, said of the creation of traditional fur parkas.

In the Yup’ik 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.

While 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 generations.

Two leather tassels, one bobbed with wolverine fur and one with wolf, are unique to the Chimegalrea family of Bethel. They are seen here on Letha Chimegalrea Simon's parka.“It 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 country’s history, how the country was formed. But are our (Native) cultures required to learn the history of these tribes and their wars and survivors?”

Simon, 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.

“I can’t believe it’s that old,” she said with a laugh.

When 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 Simon’s mother and older sister at the same time hers was created. She said the design of parkas traditionally reflects a specific family or community.

“You can tell what area or family people are from by the design,” she explained.

There 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.

“I 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. “Her’s has a bunch of different designs here, like flowers and little rabbit figures. I later thought I should have chosen something different.”

Chanda Simon, 15, models her mother’s traditional Yup’ik parka. Regrets or no, Simon’s 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 Simon’s father trapped.

It is hard to estimate how long it took to complete the work because “you work on it in between other things, when there’s time,” Simon said, but the detailed stitching and patterns suggest it took a lot of concentration and “surely many, many hours.”

The 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.

A family affair
“My dad trapped the fur for this and my mom and sister’s. It is mostly mink,” Simon explained, smoothing out some folds created from too much time in the closet.

The 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.

Letha Simon’s calf skin and fur boots match her parka.“Each one of these black triangle pieces was stitched in individually,” Simon noted, pointing to the inside of the parka to show the delicate stitching.

A 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.

There 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 Simon’s family, she explained.

Each of these various details represents part of the story the parka is meant to tell.

The story of war
Rubbing her head while trying to remember the story, Simon recounted what she’s been told about her parka’s 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 tribe.

“The others said, ‘Let’s not kill him, so he can return to his village and tell the story of what happened,’” Simon said.

But 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.

“He made it home, back to his village, to tell his tale,” Simon concluded.

So 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 tribe’s ability to survive.

Keeping the tradition alive
Although 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.

“I told her not to be too hard on it, because squirrel is not very strong,” she recalled with a laugh.

A few years later she made another small parka for her niece, who was around 2 years old at the time.

Asked 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.

“I’m 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.”

She emphasized again how important it is to continue making parkas and telling stories, and ensuring younger generations know of the tradition involved.

“It’s definitely something people need to be aware of. It involves so much history, and we should keep the tradition alive,” she said.

Events such as WEIO and today’s 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.

Contact features editor Erica Goff at 459-7523.

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