Dwindling supply of quality sealskins putting Alaskan’s livelihoods in jeopardy
KETCHIKAN, Alaska (KTUU) - Subsistence hunting is a big part of Alaska Native life and culture, and also a big part of why so many seals are harvested for meat, but instead of saving sealskin, as they normally would, many hunters are not using it.
Additionally, there’s a lack of commercial tanneries causing a shortage of quality sealskin that’s good for use.
“We used to be able to take those sealskins that we’d collect from harvesting meat and send them to a tannery and have them done commercially, nice and clean, versus now — we don’t have any commercial tanneries,” Christy Ruby said.
Ruby is a Tlingit artist and fur fashion designer based in Ketchikan. She is the proprietor of C. Ruby Designs in the Southeast Alaska community.
To make matters worse, not many hunters know how to prepare the sealskin after obtaining it to properly preserve the hide, Ruby said.
Ruby has over 12 years of experience working with marine mammal fur. She says that sealskin processing is a lot more difficult than it looks, and can be more of a challenge than with other fur-bearing animals because of its elasticity and fat content.
“Seal skin is nature’s protectant,” she said. “It’s just waterproof, windproof, durable, and I think it’s an underrated material,” Ruby said.
Without the ability to access a quality commercial tanner or someone with the proper tools and skills, the costs of sealskin are becoming so high — prices have skyrocketed from anywhere between $150 to $300 to amounts of up to $1,000 — that artists are having trouble making their money back.
“People that are dependent on seal skin to make moccasins and teach traditional goods, that’s not going to be passed on because there aren’t any skins available anymore,” Ruby said.
Anne Fritze and her husband own a fur trading store in Dillingham. Fritz says that in the past year, it’s taken her up to eight months to just get one sealskin that she could purchase.
“Within the last two years, we’ve had a hard time finding and purchasing tanned seal pelts,” Fritze said.
She also says that there were no seal hides available at the Alaska Federation of Natives this year.
“Every artist that was there, we asked, ‘Have you seen any seals? Have you seen any pelts?’,” Fritze said. “There were none.”
An insufficient amount of commercial and home tanners, combined with the struggle of passing down the proper process of tanning, is creating big problems, Fritze said.
“There’s not very many people saving their skins to be tanned at home, or there isn’t anyone available to tan them at home, then the seal skin tradition of using seal skin will be lost,” Ruby said.
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