A look at the indigenous art in Alaska

Interview with Elizabeth Mendes 10/25/2018

Interview with Elizabeth Mendes 10/25/2018:
Interviewer: Charlotte Nicolet
Transcriber: Josephine Bean
Editor: Jennifer Watts

Elizabeth Mendes Interview

Charlotte: Hi Elizabeth, can you tell me where you’re from and a little bit about yourself?

Elizabeth: Yes, my name is Elizabeth Mendes, originally from Napakiak which twenty miles out of Bethel. And I do a lot of sewing and I’d like to show you throughout this interview what they are.

C: Wonderful, can we see?

E: Okay. All my stuff that I make… My crafts are mainly on seals. This is what I do, what I do . My first seal that I first cut is that this portion goes to the hats like this. Now this is a harbor seal and a spotted seal with beaver on top and the inside of it. I use two parts of furs on these hats: this is the beaver one and the other fur that I use on hats is the sea otter. This comes from south east, that I buy from a man that sells these. And these are so beautiful on hats that a lot of people like the sea otters more than the beavers these days. But this is what I use in most of my hats. And the second part of what I do are also made out of seals are these slippers.

This is a very spotted, light seal with sharp spotted spots, called spotted seal. Now these are the leathers that I use, they come in different colors so I use all colors. The slippers with the beaded design. And the second part that I make are baby mukluks. This is made out of spotted seal and like I said, of course I use different colors of leather. And the top is sheared beaver, which is this type of fur but with less fur: it becomes very soft beaver that I use over the ruffs of the baby slippers, I’m sorry, baby mukluks. And the second part of my little mukluks are made out of calf. This type of the calf is what I use, this is the logger that I never used before, but I try to use the smaller hair of the calf that looks like this. And these are designed with land otters, sheared beaver and the same leather that I used on all my crafts, topped with a different style that I use to match what I make on each mukluk.

And the third thing that I use to out of my furs are these little tiny hats , a replica of the big hat, but in a smaller version of a hat. That are used to hang in like your car or a Christmas ornament. It’s whatever you like to use to hang your stuff that you like on these things that hang. And these are the other type of double mukluks that I design and they have different colors and they all have seals in them and they’re called little hanging, little double mukluks that you use for anything that you want.

Now the scraps of my beavers that I use are also these little earrings in different colors. I designed them beads: these are pretty popular little mukluks that people love to wear in earrings. I try to use all of my seal because they are expensive and I don’t like to waste any seals and these are all the stuff that I make all out of seal.

C: they’re beautiful, what do you do with the rabbit fur on your lap?

E: Oh the rabbit fur that I use are to make baby hats. Now I found out that this bigger, that this really fluffy rabbit goes really with baby hats. Let me find you that picture of the baby hat that I use. Now this baby hat that I use are just like this big hat of seal but made out of leather and as you can see these are the seals that use around that baby hat. And also, this is a pink little mukluk with ribbon around it that I made, and those are the thing that use, that are made out of this hairy rabbit on baby ones.

C: Okay! Can I ask you a couple of more questions?

E: Sure!

C: Where do you get your inspiration?

E: My inspiration comes from my mother, my grandmother. Who taught all their knowledge of fur making to all of her children. And that where I get my inspiration, comes from. My family.

C: Do you have anything your mother made?

E: Yes I have this beautiful parka that my mother made for me. It’s a beautiful, traditional parka. It’s made out of mountain squirrel which were, she bought from the Bristol Bay area. On this parka she had… this is a lot of work. Hand made. First of all she made, she cut all black and white calf ans sewed them together that comes to this kind of design. On this parka is wolverine. Wolverine, wolf and sea otter, land otter and wolf all around it and the trinkets are also made out of wolverine and wolf. And she did a beautiful parka and she made it.. This is what they used years ago. And it passed this style down to their descendants and she made all these trinkets like old fashioned parka that they used years ago. And this is the most beautiful parka I’ve ever seen but she was known for her work. She made so many things that I learned from her passed on to my sisters and I.

C: So this is traditional?

E: Yes this is park is very traditional. I don’t know how far it goes back. But this is what they make in Yupik culture. This is the style they used in the Yupik family, traditionally.

C: So out of everything you do, what is your favorite?

E: My favorite is making these nice big hats. That is what I like to do because they’re… All my seals are dark colors and light colors. I just love sewing, I just love and enjoy all these thing that I make. This is my favorite of all because when I get done with them they are so beautiful. Everything that I make passed down by my mom, my mom’s style that she showed and passed down to all of her daughters.

C: So, would you say your mom is your inspiration?

E:She is, she is my biggest inspiration. She, she was well known for her mukluk making and her parkas. She was expert that I wished I had learned more before she had passed on. But this is what she passed down to all of her children: how to sew and, passed down to all her grandkids even.

C: Would you say that your work in contemporary, like the materials that you sure like the dyed leather is that kind of a contemporary side, like a newer side to adding to their traditions?

E: Mhm, well back then they never had these colored slaid or leathers. What they used is made out of the moose skins, back when they didn’t have these fancy leathers. They used the very traditional kind of, I don’t know what kind of leathers they used, but they I know they tanned some of them. And they used the back of the seal as their leather in those days. But now we have selections of different leathers that we use from the fur stores or we order all these colorful leathers to put on our crafts.

C: They are just gorgeous.

E: They are just beautiful. I’m glad that you got to see what I make and passed on by my ancestors to my grandparents to my mother and to all of us.

C: Is there anything that you would like to add to that?

E: Well I just enjoy making all these crafts. It just gives me joy to work on my crafts because its from my ancestors. And they way I made them, is how they made them. So that is my biggest inspiration right there.

C: Thank you very much, you do fantastic work.

E: Thank you.