Puffin Skin Parka Shows Work of Alaska Native Women in Russian America

When the USS Resaca left Sitka in January of 1868, the Navy vessel carried on board Princess Maria Maksutoff, the wife of the last governor of Russian America, and a puffin skin parka. The Resaca had been sent to Alaska's waters due to an outbreak of yellow fever, and by happenstance arrived in Sitka in time to observe the official transfer ceremony, wherein Alaska became American. 

George Cooke was the surgeon on board the Resaca, and while in Sitka he acquired a puffin skin parka either made by Unangan or Alutiiq women. This parka is now in the collection of the Alaska State Museum. Alutiiq and Unangan women had to sew puffin skin parkas for the Russian-American Company in the first decades of the 19th century. The company dispatched all able bodied men to hunt sea otters, while elders and young men were sent to puffin rookeries to snare birds. These birds were given to the Russian-American Company (RAC), who then distributed the birds to Alutiiq and Unangan women, who were tasked with turning the pelts into parkas. The parkas were then used as a form of payment in exchange for sea otter pelts, puffin skins, and the other Native foods and goods that Russian colonies and outposts depended on for survival. The work of Alutiiq and Unangan women, then, was central to the RAC's internal economy.

Images courtesy Alaska State Museum

In this episode, I discuss the internal economy of Russian America with Russian American historian Katherine Arndt, learn about the art of Alutiiq skin sewing from Alutiiq artist Susie Malutin, discuss possible scenarios that resulted in an Alutiiq or Unangan parka ending up on a quarantined Navy ship, and consider the moment during which the Russian flag came down and the Stars and Stripes flew over Alaska. 

This episode was produced thanks to the assistance of the Alaska Historical Commission, Alaska State Museum, Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, Susie Malutin, Patrick Saltonstall, Katherine Arndt, Ellen Carrlee, Steve Henrickson, Andrew Washburn, Alaska Historical Collections and Alaska State Archives. 

Canned at Klawock: The Early History of Alaska's Salmon Industry

It was in 1878 that George Hamilton's saltery at Klawock on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska was turned into the North Pacific Trading and Packing Co. It was Alaska's first salmon cannery. Fred Hamilton is the 96 year old grandson of George Hamilton, the founder of this cannery. This summer, I got to speak with Fred and a host of others from Prince of Wales Island and elsewhere about the beginning of Alaska's commercial salmon industry.

In Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit had developed a sophisticated fishery management structure and conservation-minded fishing gear so that they could adequately feed their communities while assuring the conservation of the salmon runs. The Russians never profited from Alaska's salmon resources, but the United States knew about the potential inherent within Alaska's waters when the Treaty of Cession was signed in 1867. Within a decade, American entrepreneurs opened salmon salteries around Southeast Alaska, relying of Tlingit and Haida fishermen and management practices.

This changed with the industrialization of the salmon fishery. In this episode, you will hear the words of Senator Charles Sumner and a first hand account of when Chinese cannery workers arrived in Southeast Alaska, learn about Tlingit fishing weirs and stream ownership from Dr. Stephen Langdon and Dr. Dennis Demmert, and listen to Fred Hamilton's memories of the Prince of Wales Island salmon industry that date back to the 1930s. 

All of this is packed in a can of Klawack Brand salmon. 

Special thanks to Kathy Peavey, Karen Hofstad, Fred Hamilton, Dennis Demmert, Steve Langdon, the Alaska State Museum, the Alaska State Office of History and Archaeology, the Alaska Historical Society, and the Alaska Historical Commission for making this episode possible.

If you like this episode, you might also enjoy Canned at Karluk and Filipinos in Larsen Bay, 1915