Famous skin sewer dies at over 100

by Angela Denning-Barnes on August 30, 2012

Myron Rosenberg's photo of Lucy Beaver and her great-grandson.

One of the most renowned Yup’ik skin sewers has died. Lucy Beaver passed away in Anchorage August 23. No one’s exactly sure how old she was but according to her own accounts, it could have been 113 years. She was an icon within the Yup’ik community and was known for making mukluks, or Yup’ik winter boots for hundreds—some even say thousands-of people over the years.

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She also made many parkas with intricate fur designs and bead work.

Her portrait taken by Alaskan photographer, Myron Rosenberg, is known worldwide. The picture shows her holding her great-grandson, who is sleeping in her lap. They are both donning fur parkas.

In a translated interview with KYUK in 1985, Beaver said she learned to sew on skins when she was a young girl by drawing designs in the mud with her story knife. She said no one taught her how to sew, she just watched others doing it. But she didn’t always like it.

“After I married, my husband used to have me sew. He’d let me sew on my own,” Beaver said through a translator. “I was a young girl then and I enjoyed being outside. I wouldn’t want to sew, and I’d cry because I hated to sew (laughing).”

Beaver learned to like sewing parkas and boots the most because she said they were useful in keeping the body warm. Traditionally, men’s parkas were made with fur from the backs of muskrats and women’s were made from the animal’s belly fur.

Beaver said her designs turned out better than her mother’s because she had more modern materials to work with. Beaver adapted designs from the Yukon and upriver areas, outside of her traditional family or village design. There was no real rhyme or reason; she said she used whatever design she liked.

Beaver was born in a fall camp (Qinarmiut) on the lower Kuskokwim River and raised in Nunapitchuk, where she and her late husband, George Beaver, raised their children. Later, they relocated to Bethel. There, she was deeply devoted to the Moravian Church.

Her home was built using one-half of the original Bethel Moravian church. She was often heard singing hymns in Yup’ik as she sewed.

A memorial for Beaver was held August 30 in Anchorage. Her body will be flown to Bethel for visitations this weekend, and a funeral on Monday.

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