Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Helping hand-me-down — Collaborative research, years of effort turn donated family heirloom into cultural display

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Kenai Peninsula College’s newest cultural artifact was a long time and distance coming.

Not only is the Native Eskimo, black-and-white, bird-skin parka probably around 100 years old, it took about 25 years for Gwen Gere’s parents, and then Gere, to decide what to do with it, and another two to three years for the parka to be repaired, researched and readied for display in the Kenai River Campus commons area.

These days the family heirloom parka that was made in a region at least 1,000 miles away from where Gere lives is on display where she works.

Gere’s parents, Russ and Doris Riemann, lived in Anchorage since the early 1950s, running Book Cache stores and a magazine and book wholesale distributor around the state. The business would take Mr. Riemann to Nome and Kotzebue periodically.

“A lot of time people didn’t pay their bills,” Gere said. “In the ’50s and ’60s he was his own collections agent. He’d fly to Kotzebue and say, ‘OK, give me my money.’ A lot of time they’d say, ‘We don’t have any money, but here, would you like this ivory carving or a baleen basket?’”

Once in a while, Gere and her two sisters would take turns accompanying their dad.

“It’s one of those things you don’t get to appreciate at the time. He told me to take your shoes off and go wade in the Bering Sea, and I didn’t appreciate it. I just felt like a dork then,” she said.

On one of these trips about 25 years ago, he came across a historic bird-skin parka, worn by Natives of the region because of its waterproof, insulating qualities. The owner was considering selling it to someone from the Lower 48, but Riemann didn’t want it to leave Alaska, Gere said.

“A gentleman wanted to buy it for a collection someplace on the East Coast, but my parents didn’t think it should leave the state,” she said. “I don’t know how they ended up with it, if my dad bought it before the other gentlemen did or what, but they bought the coat then spent 25 years trying to figure out what to do with it.”

Gere said her parents wanted the parka to be preserved and displayed. Mrs. Riemann contacted the Smithsonian Institute, but didn’t get a response. And the Anchorage museum said it’d end up in storage, since it already had similar parkas. When her parents died about four years ago, Gere took on the task of finding the parka a suitable home.

“It was something my family really wanted to do because my parents really wanted it to be something where people could see it and enjoy it and learn form it, and they hadn’t been able to find that spot,” Gere said.

Gere is the bookstore manager at KPC’s Soldotna campus. She thought the University of Alaska system might be interested in the parka, so she approached KPC Director Gary Turner about it, with somewhat mixed feelings. She wanted the parka to be displayed and cared for, but she knew by donating it she was giving up her say in where it ended up and risking losing track of her family’s heirloom.

She was happy to hear that not only was the university system interested in displaying the parka, but that the parka would stay at KPC.

“He had the vision to see that it was something that was valuable and a learning instrument in the university, so I’m delighted that it’s down here because if you give it away, you give it away and you don’t know what will happen with it,” Gere said. “They realized the worth of it and the value of it. It really is a dream come true for me.”

The parka is now on display in the commons just outside the bookstore, with information about the parka, historic photos and a plaque about Gere’s parents, with their picture.

“My parents were visionaries. They really had a love for the state of Alaska,” Gere said. “That’s why they did what they did, why they tried to keep Alaskan things in Alaska and why they promoted reading and literature. It was their vision and they loved the state, so I think if that comes through, then I think it’s wonderful.

“It meant so much to my parents, all this time they hung onto it and tried to figure out what to do with it. It’s nice for me because I get to see it every day and people have appreciated the quality of it and its legacy, because it’s from a time that is no longer.”

The display itself took a long time to prepare — two to three years, Gere said.

Holly Cusack-McVeigh, a cultural anthropologist with the Pratt Museum in Homer, was teaching a course on Alaska Native cultures when the parka was brought to her attention. Her class just happened to be studying cultures of the Bering Sea region, where the parka was made.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for my students to learn about identifying an object, trying to connect it to a specific cultural group, and be able to follow all that research, as well, and learning how to handle objects,” she said.

Cusack-McVeigh took on the task of researching and preparing the display. First, the parka itself needed tending.

“Based on how long the family had it, and when it may have been made, it’s in really excellent condition for its age,” Cusack-McVeigh said.

A conservator from Anchorage mended a tear in the seam of a sleeve and created a museum-quality, custom-fitted mount that would support the parka, and a case design and the commons location was determined to protect it from harm.
“It’s fairly fragile and fairly delicate. It’s sensitive to light, in that bird feathers are one of the more light-sensitive organic materials,” Cusack-McVeigh said.

It took a few years to finish studying the parka and doing research for the display information — and there are still questions left unanswered.

Cusack-McVeigh figures the parka probably dates from the early 1900s, if not earlier. There were three district Eskimo groups of the Bering Sea region that made similar hooded, bird-skin parkas — the Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik and Central Yup’ik cultures — so she wasn’t able to determine where, specifically, it came from. Such parkas were worn as daily outerwear, since bird feathers are so water-resistant.

Murre, puffin, cormorant, loon, auklet, goose and duck skins were traditionally used to construct the parkas. Biologists with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge helped identify the birds in this specimen. The main black-and-white pattern comes from murres, with a greenish sheen from pelagic cormorants.

The director of Arctic studies for the Smithsonian branch in Anchorage shared parkas from the Smithsonian’s collection with Cusack-McVeigh for comparative studies. And a linguist from the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks helped Cusack-McVeigh make sure she had the correct words for the parka — “atkuk” for Central Yup’ik and Siberian Yupik, and “atigi” for Inupiaq — for the display, since the region’s cultural groups had different names for different types of parkas.

“There was actually quite a bit of research over the course of two or three years as we worked on putting the exhibit itself together,” she said.

Cusack-McVeigh said it’s a relief to have the parka protected and the display complete, so everyone at the college can appreciate the piece, just as she had.

“One of the most amazing things about this parka is the skill with which it was made. I feel that in part it survived and it’s in the condition it is in because the original maker was highly skilled — highly skilled in cleaning skins, highly skilled in preparing skins and just a meticulous sewer,” she said.

“This really is a legacy piece and there’s just an incredible amount of knowledge and skill that went into making a piece like this.”

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