This parka from Alaska is windproof, waterproof and made from bear intestines

With needles, sinew and beach grass in hand, a group of women in Alaska have revived an old tradition and learned a new skill in the process: sewing bear intestines into wearables.

To the untrained eye, the Linda Selanoff formal bear-gut parka has recently helped create looks reminiscent of a clear plastic rain jacket. The translucent coat, trimmed with fur and shells, is waterproof, windproof, lightweight and durable.

It is made from the intestines of two bears, painstakingly cleaned and sewn together for two weeks by Selanoff and other Chugach Sugpiaq and Eyak women in Alaska’s Prince William Sound region.

« It’s an honor to have had the opportunity to learn a lost art, a lost skill, and then bring one back to the area that isn’t in a museum, » Selanoff said.

June Pardue showed participants how to prepare and sew this bear intestine into a parka. (Submitted by June Pardue)

There’s a touch of reverence in Selanoff’s voice when she talks about it. Talk with North wind host Wanda McLeod, Selanoff described the process behind the creation of what was once a common and vital tool for hunters setting out in kayaks to harvest marine mammals.

Unlike many parkas which are sewn together – front, back and sides – the gut parka is sewn in a continuous circular motion down to the chest.

Soft blades of beach grass line the seams and billow to prevent water from entering through the needle holes – a special waterproof stitch that is essential to the construction of this parka.

A translucent parka hangs from the branch of a tree.
The finished ceremonial parka features a fur trim and fancy stitching. (Submitted by Diane Selanoff)

Holding history

When Sugpiaq’s eldest, June Pardue, was very young, her mother Sophia Jane Johnson showed her on tobacco paper how to fold and sew this special waterproof stitch.

Back on Kodiak Island, where Pardue is from, a gut parka has been created over the past 15 or so years. But for the Sugpiaq of Prince William Sound, it’s been between 100 and 150 years since the last gut parka was sewn.

Pardue led the group in creating this latest bear gut parka, showing them the process just as his elders taught him.

« I’m so grateful that my mom shared these things with me, to make it all come back to me, » she said.

« It was a long process. It was a beautiful process…and it was glorious. »

Two women lean on a table and examine a translucent parka.
Joyce Kompkoff Peterson, left, and Diane Selanoff examine the parka sleeve. (Submitted by Diane Selanoff)

Pardue said they turned the parka into a ceremonial parka instead of a functional one because they didn’t have enough gut to make the balaclava. This gave them the opportunity to add embellishments – adding fur around the neck, wrists and bottom opening.

« There were artists working with me and I could see, wow, their eyes light up. They become artists, » she recalled. Together they designed the trim with seal and sea lion fur, decorated with seashells and red beads.

Selanoff said she hopes this project will be the start of a process to bring the beargut parka back to modern use.

“We are able to continue to teach and share the knowledge that we have learned and how to make another gut parka. So hopefully in the future it will become more mainstream,” she said .

« Copper River Sockeye Salmon Run »

The parka will stay with Chugachmiut, the Alaska Native nonprofit agency that hosted the class as part of its language and culture program.

Selanoff said the advice to create the parka came from the Chugachmiut elders program.

« We all decided it would be a great idea to try to replicate the gut parka, because knowledge of how it was made has been lost in that region, » she said.

Long and short strips of fur are tied together with shell and bead decorations.
The sleeve trim of the parka features red shells and beads attached to seal fur, with sea lion fur in between. (Submitted by Diane Selanoff)

While Pardue, Selanoff and the other participants did the sewing work, it ultimately became a community effort.

The weather was perfect when they started cleaning the gut in early June. They sewed the parka itself in a large building in Cordoba, where community members helped strip the sewing thread and cut the pieces of fur for the trim.

« People were so excited. They even brought food to keep us going, » Pardue laughed.

« Copper River red salmon was flowing. So people were bringing Copper River red, smoked salmon jam, sandwiches and salads, fish heads – it was just wonderful. »

When the parka was finally finished, the community held a potluck to celebrate.

« It was a celebration for their very first garment made by their people in over 100 years, » she said.


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