Medium: Skin Sewing, Weaving, & Beading
Born and raised in the Alutiiq community of Old Harbor, Melissa Berns is an Alutiiq artist who specializes in skin sewing, basket weaving and the creation of traditional regalia. Accoding to Melissa, "This is a spiritual journey that will allow me to have a glimpse into the past and history of my Alutiiq ancestors and will provide me with the tools to move forward incorporating modern traditions with the skills of the past."
Living a subsistence lifestyle, with the traditions and values of the Alutiiq people, I grew up with family members harvesting salmon, herring, halibut, cod, seal, sea lion, otters, deer, fox, goat and bear. I was exposed to the arts of my Alutiiq ancestors while in elementary school during the annual Alutiiq Week celebration in Old Harbor. On an annual basis I was expansively shown the arts of skin sewing, beading, grass basket weaving, carving, Alutiiq Language, traditional harvesting, cooking, and the history of my people. All of this was taught by elders in my community who believed in sharing and passing down their traditional knowledge. These intensive workshops furnished me with the knowledge and appreciation I have for my rich Alutiiq culture. My primary focus lies in skin sewing (seal/sea lion/sea otter/ermine/salmon skin – pillows, bags, slippers, boots), the re-creation of traditional regalia (dance dresses, head dresses, dancing belts, other traditional adornments), Alutiiq basket making (grass baskets and woven grass wall hangings), jewelry making (necklaces, earrings, bracelets, pouches), and traditional/ceremonial Alutiiq dance (learning and preserving old songs & dances/writing new songs & choreographing dances).
I have taken great pride in being a dance leader, teacher of skin sewing and grass basket making in my community. When Russian settlers arrived on our island much of the way of life was forcefully taken away from our people including dance, language and arts. Many of the elders on our island had become shameful of their rich culture and were forced to speak Russian and English as well as to live a westernized life style. I grew up without dance in my community. Upon returning back to Old Harbor, to raise my own children, I felt the need to immerse myself and my children to this form of art. I was able to learn dance from some of the youth in the community and songs from elders. From there I participated in writing new songs in our Alutiiq language, choreographing dances, and creating new dance regalia. Much of my work is directly related to traditional Alutiiq dance. I begin working more intensely with skins while creating regalia and dancing boots. My love of the outdoors, wildlife, hunting and fishing has given me a great appreciation for my ancestor’s way of life. While harvesting or cleaning hides given to me I often think of the tools used long ago and what other materials must have been used to make the elaborate clothing used for survival in the harsh Kodiak weather. It is my hopes to study Alutiiq collections around the world to learn common practices of my ancestors. I would like to document the traditions and old techniques through my own work, learning from the Alutiiq people with the goal of perpetuating the continuation of our cultural arts for future generations.
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