Fish skin: some people eat it, others throw it out, and some make baskets from it. This week at the Sitka Arts and Science Festival, five women are learning how to make a basket from fish skin, beads, and a needle and thread. Their teacher is Athabascan artist Audrey Armstrong. She comes to Sitka every summer to teach this class.
Reporting for KCAW, Sarah Gibson visited their makeshift studio at the Sitka Science Center’s Mill Building.
Audrey Armstrong is reaching into a cooler of gleaming fish skins. She pulls out a strip with delicate scales.
Armstrong: Look how tiny! I’m going to use this for some kind of awesome little basket. Look at that. So pretty!
Gibson: What kind of fish is it?
There are skins of Lingcod, Salmon, and Halibut that look and feel like soft leather – scales still on, scraped clean of flesh. But then Armstrong finds a white and orange skin – it’s a rockfish and there’s a trace of meat still attached. She holds it up for the class to see.
“Everybody: the Rockfish. Look at the skins that were here. You do not want to ever save skins like this” Armstrong says, holding it up for the class to see. “All that meat on it right now and fat? It’s just going to rot on your work. So you got to scrape, scrape, scrape. A lot of scraping.”
And she means a lot. The first and most tedious step of making a basket is the hours – sometimes, the days – of scraping meat from the fish skin. Armstrong lays the skin on a cutting board, scales facing down, and begins.
The Process of Sewing a Fish Skin Basket (Slideshow)
She’s using an ulu, a rounded saw blade with a handle made from moose bone. Hers was a gift. “My uncle made this for me 45 years ago – and it’s my favorite. As you can see the bone is cracked here but it’s never fallen apart,” Armstrong said.
Once the fishskins are clean, you measure, cut, and stitch the wet skins together. Then, you dry the basket around a mold. Armstrong uses kitchenware. “You can use glass, you can use plastic, you can use your yogurt container,” she said.
When the baskets are dry, they come off the mold, and are ready to decorate with beads and shells. That’s what the class is doing today. One student asks Armstrong’s husband to drill a hole in a mussel shell so she can sew it to her basket.
It might seem odd – power tools for traditional art, but Armstrong says she improvises like this all the time.
When she started basketry, she didn’t have a teacher or a book, just stories from her auntie about how the village used fish skins centuries ago. Armstrong tells her students how she got started. She was fly-fishing in September. She caught a salmon, and she had this moment.
“The sun just started coming out and it had these beautiful colors in the salmon. I looked at it and I said wow, ‘My ancestors used to make things out of fish skin, but I’ve never seen anything made out of it,'” Armstrong recalled.
So Armstrong got to work, scraping the skins, and experimenting. When she finished her first basket, she brought it to her auntie. Even though they knew stories of these baskets, Armstrong’s was the first Athabaskan fish-skin basket either had ever seen or touched.
“And she goes, ‘Ani!’ Which means in my Athabascan language ‘very good.’ That just warmed my heart because then I knew I was on the right path,” Armstrong said.
The right path, but also one with a lot of work. When Armstrong goes home to Anchorage tomorrow, she plans to scrape fish skins for a week. She says there are skins from 72 salmon waiting for her.