CASE STUDY - Community Experts

"Pinerrluirturluki Kesianek/Always Preparing Our Men for Success"
Yup'ik elders visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, October 27-November 4, 2012

Ann Fienup-Riordan

During the last week of October 2012, three Yup'ik seamstresses - Albertina Dull (age 94), Elsie Tommy (age 90), and Martina John (age 74) traveled with Ruth Jimmie, Calista Elders Council (CEC) director Mark John, University of Alaska Fairbanks student Abby Moses, and anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan to Washington, DC to work in collections at both the NMAI and NMNH. None of the elders spoke English and none had ever left Alaska, let alone traveled so far from home. They were all thrilled to be coming to Washington, where during the last days of their visit they were joined by two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

Our trip was made even more exciting by the participation of April Dutheil and Jordan Konak of the Arviat History Project in Nunavut. Both April and Jordan had traveled to DC for the Inuit Studies Conference and planned to stay with us an extra day to train Abby in social media and sharing our trip with relatives and friends back in Alaska. As it turned out, April and Jordan were with us for half the trip and helped Abby share photos, videos--especially the run-away hit Yup'ik Elders Gang--and observations through the Calista Elders Council website and Facebook page, Yup'ik Elders. Thousands of Yup'ik people could see their elders exploring museum collections, laughing and smiling in the process.

Our trip got off to a windy start with the arrival of superstorm Sandy. Although this was worrisome in prospect, our days at the Holiday Inn were filled with story-telling and sharing. We held a small "sewing gathering" in Albertina and Elsie's room, where the women spoke of their experiences growing up and how they learned to sew. Martina, who had brought skin boots to sell at the museum, showed how to sew boot soles as well as the measurements for the upper parts and their decorative features.

Although Sandy shortened our time in collections, it allowed the women to rest and reflect after a long trip and prior to a much-anticipated experience.

At the end of the trip, Mark John noted that what most impressed him was the elders' knowledge. They looked at objects and could tell the materials they were made from, who they were made for. More than that they noticed that some things were made with love, while other things were "just made." He also noticed how the elders' voices got stronger when they were talking about the past, which they could clearly see.

Our trip got off to a windy start with the arrival of superstorm Sandy. Although this was worrisome in prospect, our days at the Holiday Inn were filled with story-telling and sharing. We held a small "sewing gathering" in Albertina and Elsie's room, where the women spoke of their experiences growing up and how they learned to sew. Martina, who had brought skin boots to sell at the museum, showed how to sew boot soles as well as the measurements for the upper parts and their decorative features.

Although Sandy shortened our time in collections, it allowed the women to rest and reflect after a long trip and prior to a much-anticipated experience.

At the end of the trip, Mark John noted that what most impressed him was the elders' knowledge. They looked at objects and could tell the materials they were made from, who they were made for. More than that they noticed that some things were made with love, while other things were "just made." He also noticed how the elders' voices got stronger when they were talking about the past, which they could clearly see.

Mark talked about our need to continue to document these things from hunting the animal, to preparing the material, to the finished product. Again, he feels the urgency of our work. The elders appreciated seeing things from their area but also other objects. They noticed with interest how they were differently made, as for example a gut parka at NMAI made with horizontally sewn strips rather than the circular sewing method used on Nelson Island.

I asked Ruth Jimmie what she had liked best about our trip, and she said it was seeing the old things in collections. The city itself was OK, but our days in collections stood out as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Home in Alaska, Alice Rearden set to work transcribing the fifteen 90-minute audio tapes recorded during our trip. As she worked she kept track or further questions we need to ask the elders when we see them again in Anchorage. Ann also pulled together information on sewing and clothing construction shared by elder women during previous gatherings. A great example is the story Paul John told many years ago about a flying parka. It continues to amaze me how, thanks to new questions, one can revisit transcripts and learn so much more.

The most satisfying thing for me during our trip was to share elders' joy in revisiting their past and the wonderful ways in which they shared that joy with us and with one another. I don't believe this would have been possible without the warmth and friendliness of all the women and men we worked with both at NMAI and NMNH, especially Landis Smith who smoothed our way into collections. Sharing rides, food, jokes, and enthusiasm, I've never worked in collections with such a great group of people.

Thanks not only to what the elders shared but how they shared it, the book that is growing out of our work together will highlight finely crafted clothing imbued with the love and compassion with which they were created.

About these guidelines

This project was funded by the Anne Ray Charitable Trust with additional support from the Naitonal Museum of the American Indian.

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