LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
One of the few ways indigenous people in Alaska can earn cash from traditional hunting is by turning seal pelts into clothing - hats, gloves, slippers. Alaska Public Media's Zachariah Hughes brings us this story from a small tannery, the only one of its kind in a remote community not far from the Arctic Circle.
ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: Cordelia Kellie is Alaskan native and does a lot of work helping revive Indigenous culture. It's a job she loves, which you can tell immediately because, as she talks about it, she lets out the kind of laughter that could stop traffic.
CORDELIA KELLIE: (Laughing).
HUGHES: Kellie's job takes her to small communities all over the Arctic. And when she goes, she always takes a pair of shimmering gray sealskin gloves she bought from a woman at a dance festival.
KELLIE: I asked her where she got the seal because oftentimes when you ask that question it can come from a father or an uncle or a cousin. And she said, I killed it (laughing).
HUGHES: Seal fur is a coveted byproduct of a hunt done primarily for food. It offers protection from cold and wind that's still unmatched by industrial fabrics. And Kellie says when you see the distinctive modeled sheen in boots or hats or gloves, it signals your Indigenous heritage.
KELLIE: It definitely communicates that you're likely from a northern part of the state.
HUGHES: Sealskin used to be a lot more prevalent - not just in Alaska but across the U.S. and Europe. Like a lot of furs, it was a luxury product, showing up, among other places, in this archival film clip of a British fashion preview.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Forecasters say it'll be back to the 1940s, but you wouldn't know it from this Alaskan seal coat, would you? Costs 800 pounds.
HUGHES: Back then, fur merchants would trade cash for full pelts, buying stacks of them from hunters. But in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act put an end to that, and with it, one of the few ways to generate cash from traditional hunting. Nowadays, only Alaskan natives can buy and sell full sealskins. Tourists can legally buy only finished products like hats or slippers. And that's what makes a small tannery in the town of Shishmaref a crucial link between Indigenous hunters and buyers. It's a community of just 600 people, where you can walk into the general store, and owner Percy Nayokpuk will sell you a pair of sealskin slippers for around $250.
PERCY NAYOKPUK: This is good slippers for up North, I tell you, you know. Don’t get no Crocs if you’re gonna live around here. Get a pair of these.
HUGHES: There are several of them lined up casually on a shelf, mostly on the chance a visitor buy a pair. Across Alaska, Shishmaref has a reputation for having some of the finest traditional crafts. It stems in part from an innovative business strategy set up to leverage local talent.
DENNIS SINOOK: When people first come in, they come in and drop the seals off here.
HUGHES: Dennis Sinook manages the Shishmaref Tannery, a squat prefab building out by the airstrip. And he's giving a tour of the room where workers process seal carcasses after hunters drop them off.
SINOOK: These are flushing machines. It’s a round knife, to where it fleshes the fat right off of the seal.
HUGHES: After fits and starts, the tannery reopened last year and is the only one of its kind in Alaska right now. There's so much demand for this service that they had to set a limit of how many hides each family can bring in, partly because it's still really hard to run a business in rural Alaska. There's a lack of basic infrastructure and sky-high costs for things like food and fuel. For instance, a gallon of drinking water costs $11 at the grocery store. Sinook is optimistic the business can survive all the challenges.
SINOOK: Hopefully somebody can see what I see or how I've been doing it to keep it open, to keep it alive, to keep people sewing, you know, keeping the tradition going, making crafts out of seal.
HUGHES: Sinook's hope is to connect the town's Indigenous heritage to its economic future. For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes in Shishmaref.