Yup’ik culture embodies reciprocity between human, plant, animal and spiritual worlds. I assume responsibility for this by practicing an endangered art form disrupted by colonization: sewing the skins of marine mammals and fish. My work challenges anti-Native policy, the lingering colonial mindset of divine right to rule America’s original inhabitants, and the role that mindset has in climate change and ecological collapse threatening Indigenous peoples and the natural world we depend on. My pieces intentionally discomfit viewers who subscribe to mainstream, non-Indigenous views of conservation, believing that we must “preserve” nature by minimizing human interaction with it. This is in contrast to Indigenous perspectives: We must build reciprocal, intimate relationships with plants and animals, as we nourish ourselves and adorn our bodies with them every day.
I create by manipulating the patterns, colors and shades of fish, seal and sea otter skins, carefully arranging scraps to create striking geometries or fluid curves. The surface aesthetics are simple, accessible, and do not initially communicate a narrative; until the viewer notices the unusual texture of the works. A closer look leads to dialogue about the materials and the story of their becoming. The conservation of seals and sea otters is governed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the United States, which prohibits them from being hunted by most US citizens. Coastal Alaska Natives like myself are exempted from this prohibition, as we have sustainably and respectfully harvested these species for thousands of years. Marine mammals are a foundational part of our culture; and studies by marine biologists have demonstrated that our harvest does not negatively affect the species’ population levels.
My process perpetuates Alaska Native protocol of developing a personal relationship with ‘the materials of place’: I source by hunting and fishing; I alter by tanning; I construct by the time consuming yet cathartic labor of hand sewing, each stitch a prayer. The start-to-finish intimacy of my work underlines the ethos of Indigenous practice: Our environment and its inhabitants are not to be treated as disposable resources, but as critical relationships. Before a hunt I smudge and pray, asking the animal for its life; after the hunt I honor the animal by giving it its last drink of water per Yup’ik custom. Catches are shared as nourishment for my community, then repurposed into a reflection of Native experience. By hand-sewing garments, sculptures and paintings out of fish and marine mammals that I hunt, I bind the human, natural and spiritual realms into traditional and new art forms, creating a capsule of Indigenous knowledge and a warning siren to the balance of humanity that ignores it.
The deeply holistic nature of my culture not only informs my art but is the reason I create it. I use classrooms and interviews to share these values, to pass on traditional knowledge and help preserve it. I follow the footsteps of my ancestors. Turning Native harvested food into art and fashion objects, and telling the stories of their becoming, asserts a place for these ancestral traditions in the future.
Learn more and visit Peter’s website: www.shamanfurs.com.
Yup’ik artist and designer Peter Williams bridges worlds of fashion, art, tradition and innovation. His hand-sewn works from self hunted animals challenges anti-Native policy and viewers who subscribe to mainstream, non-Indigenous views of conservation, believing that we must “preserve” nature by minimizing human interaction with it. This is in contrast to Indigenous perspectives: We must build reciprocal, intimate relationships with plants and animals, as we nourish ourselves and adorn our bodies with them every day. His fur objects go a step beyond to address the legacy of colonization and the struggle to keep ancient customs alive. By celebrating natural cycles and living in harmony with the animal and spiritual worlds, Yup’ik culture has survived for thousands of years in some of the harshest environments.
Virtual Artist Talk: May 6, 5:00 pm
Closing Reception: June 23, 6:00 – 8:00pm
Image: “Why Did I Cry Making This Symbol?” (2018), Sea otter; sheared sea otter; seal; thread, 15 1/2” x 19 1/2” x 2”.
Photo credit Alyssa Russell
Description: Russian colonial powers prized sea otter fur, and lust for this ‘soft gold’ led to genocide, land theft, and exploitation of Alaska and its Indigenous groups. This oppressive power dynamic continues through American occupation today. Although Alaska Natives theoretically have exclusive rights to hunt and work with marine mammals, non-Native people are still creating the definitions and regulations of who qualifies as Alaska Native and what qualifies as Native art.