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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

Coral Chernoff's ulu and leathered salmon skins, 2012.
Coral Chernoff's ulu and leathered salmon skins, 2012. Photo by Wayde Carroll

Strong, durable, water-resistant salmon skin was once widely used by North Pacific peoples for making bags, parkas, boots, mittens, and other clothing. This versatile natural material was often dyed, decoratively stitched, and patterned with other skins to accent its supple beauty.

During the Sewing Salmon artists residency organized by the Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum in 2012, Alaska Native artists Audrey Armstrong (Koyukon Athabascan), Coral Chernoff (Sugpiaq) and Marlene Nielsen (Yup’ik) demonstrated the whole process, beginning with whole silver salmon and going through the steps of skinning, processing, sewing, and decorating.  Museum visitors, including elementary and middle school classes, came by during the week to interact with the artists and to watch the fascinating transformation. The artists worked with ethnographic museum conservators who attended the workshop and recorded cultural data that will help them to stabilize, repair, and protect fish skin objects at their respective museums. The artists also examined fish skin objects from the Living Our Cultures exhibition and the Anchorage Museum collections, where they saw evidence of the diverse techniques they employ today.

In the educational videos presented here, the artists describe and demonstrate their different methods of working with fish skin: how to remove skin from a fish, how to clean and store fish skin, and how to tan, sew and mold it. There are also interviews with artists and museum conservators, and a Q&A with visiting school children.  To learn more about Alaska Native cultures, please visit the exhibition website Sharing Knowledge at where you will also find educational materials in the Resources section.

In addition, an interdisciplinary curriculum is provided – Salmon Give Life: Learning from Alaska's First Peoples. Students will learn about subsistence, with a focus on salmon, and how Alaska Natives utilize local resources to survive and thrive. There are five activity-based lessons that can be used over a week, individually, or modified to meet class needs.

Anchorage middle school students learn from artists.
Anchorage middle school students learn from artists (left to right) Marlene Nielsen, Coral Chernoff and Audrey Armstrong at the residency, 2012. Photo by Wayde Carroll.


Introduction (1 video)

Artists' Methods (3 videos)

Stitching Salmon Skin (1 video)

Learning from Native Artists (1 video)

Answers from the Artists (1 video)

Meet the Artists (3 videos)

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