Smithsonian Spotlight at the Anchorage Museum: Sonya Kelliher-Combs
Smithsonian Spotlight: Ed Mighell

Material Traditions: Sewing Gut

By: Dawn Biddison with Meghan Mulkerin 


Gut Parka Made Of Seal Intestines. Collections of the National Museum of Natural History, Catalog Number: 165342 Photo Credit: Donald E. Hurlbert.

If you were following @ArcticStudies on Twitter, you know that we got hands-on with a very interesting Native craft activity here at NMNH in the Q?rius education center: working with gutskin! What you may not know, is that this is part of a larger program, called the Material Traditions artists' residency, hosted by the Alaska office of the Arctic Studies Center (ASC) at the Anchorage Museum. The Sewing Gut artists' residency project was the third Material Traditions project for ASC Alaska. The event brought our staff and community members in distant parts of the country together through webcasting! If you missed the action on Twitter, be sure to check out this storify of all of the tweets we sent out during the event; you'll learn a lot about gutskin, see some great examples of gutskin clothing, and get to see the teens in action in Q?rius during the workshop.

B34d5gVIEAECjdQ B34Tq0vCYAA7nxeWorking on gutskin creations in the Q?rius Center and photos of craft ideas with the raw materials! Photo Credit: Meghan Mulkerin

During the Sewing Gut residency, artists Mary Tunuchuk (Yup'ik), Elaine Kingeekuk (St. Lawrence Island Yupik) and Sonya Kelliher-Combs (Iñupiaq/Athabascan) shared their knowledge about processing and sewing sea mammal gut (intestines and other inner membranes) with University of Alaska Anchorage Native art students, Anchorage school district students and museum visitors.

MTG SKC EM DL SBE 12-01-2014 WCMary Tunuchuk, Elaine Kingeekuk,and Sonya Kelliher-Combs processing gut skin. Photo Credit: Wayde Carroll Photography.

Conservators Kelly McHugh (National Museum of the American Indian), Michele Austin-Dennehy (National Museum of National History), Monica Shah (Anchorage Museum) and Sarah Owens (Anchorage Museum) also attended for hands-on learning about making and caring for gut objects and about the use of hog intestine as a substitute material. The work included: cleaning, scraping, soaking, blowing up and drying intestine; cutting dried intestine; preparing thread and grass for sewing; and practicing seams and stitches used in making gut parkas and windows. The conservators also joined the artists as they studied and shared technical information about masterworks made with gutskin taken off display from the Living Our Cultures exhibition and from the Anchorage Museum collection.

MTG Elaine Kingeekuk 12-01-14 WCElaine Kingeekuk examines a piece of gutskin. Photo Credit: Wayde Carroll Photography.

We were all thrilled to be able to collaborate live with the artists in Alaska through webcasts. One of the webcasts was with conservation students in three locations and another was with a Q?rius workshop at the National Museum of Natural History, for middle and high school students. The conservation webcasts were led by Monica Shah, and the residency artists gave a presentation to and answered questions from conservation fellows and students from three different programs: the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), with conservator, Susan Heald, the UCLA Getty, with professor/conservator, Ellen Pearlstein, and at Winterthur Museum, with professor/conservator, Bruno Pouliot. Led by Kelly McHugh, the artists participated in a Q?rius workshop called "Do You Have the Guts" organized by Colleen Popson of the NMNH Office of Education and Outreach. ASC's Igor Krupnik gave a lecture, and NMAI conservation fellow Fran Ritchie assisted with bringing artifacts from Smithsonian collections for the students to examine. Meanwhile, ASC Program Coordinator, Meghan Mulkerin, live tweeted the event and provided factoids all day, resulting in nearly 500,000 impressions on Twitter.

SLIY Gambell 1930 NAA GA30-87Kiruka inflates walrus intestines for drying. Gambell, 1930. Photo courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, GA 30-87

A new component to the Material Traditions series is a community workshop held for two days after the residency in Anchorage. For Sewing Gut, the workshop will be held in Bethel, in partnership with the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center. Mary Tunuchuk (from Chefornak) will teach local students about gut as a material for sewing by demonstrating the processing of seal intestine and techniques for sewing. Anchorage Museum conservator Sarah Owens, who also participated in the Anchorage residency, will give a presentation on historic and contemporary museum pieces made from gut and assist Mary in teaching.

MTG Mary Tunuchuk 12-02-2014 WCMary Tunuchuk teaches about gut skin sewing. Photo Credit: Wayde Carroll Photography.

Workshop students will learn about processing and sewing gut through hands-on practice with seal intestine provided by Mary for Alaska Native students and with hog intestine provided to non-Native students. Students will begin a small project – an egaleq (window) – traditionally made from seal intestine and used in a qasgiq (community house).

Please let us know if you have questions about this residency program, or about gutskin clothing! Tweet to us @ArcticStudies. Don't forget to check out the Storify of the event on Twitter.


The Sewing Gut residency was made possible by the generous support of the Surdna Foundation, The CIRI Foundation, Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Anchorage Museum. For examples of the local media coverage, please visit these radio and TV links:

The Material Traditions series is project managed by Dawn Biddison (Arctic Studies Center). Sugpiaq artist and videographer Anna Hoover filmed the residency and will also film and photograph during the workshop. The residency was photographed by Wayde Carroll. Assistance at the residency and additional sound recording was provided by Heather McClain, a former intern and currently Collections Coordinator at the Seward Community Library and Museum.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)