Bobby Lynn Qalutaksraq Brower

Bobby Lynn Qalutaksraq Brower is an Inupiaq artist who was born and raised in Utqiagvik, Alaska. She started her custom Indigenous clothing business in 2010, then later bought a fur business in 2015. She makes everything from parkas, hats, booties, and also printed designed clothing. Everything she makes is inspired by her home and culture.

Conversation Audio Clips

The world Kivetoruk has built represents an important and specific experience. To read his work to the fullest and most accurate analysis is to have Indigenous interpretation and critique. The parkas in Kivetoruk’s work should be looked at by parka makers. His attention to detail and representation of his lived and studied Inupiat life and heritage are easily seen in every piece. Therefore, when looking at Kivetoruk’s work, we should entrust the parka explanations to parka makers.

Conversation with Bobby Lynn Qalutaksraq Brower

Melissa Shaginoff: Hi Bobby, would you mind introducing yourself?

Bobby Brower: Okay. Bobby Lynn Qalutaksraq Itta I’m from Kaktovik, Alaska. I’m a traditional and contemporary skin sewer. Let’s see. I was born and raised here. I’m Iñupiaq. I’m a mother of four children, and I’ve been sewing since I was about thirteen years old. So twenty years sewing.

Melissa Shaginoff: Tsin’aen for talking with me. It’s pretty amazing when I see your work and the intergenerational sewing that you shared so much about, and making parkas for your kids, I just love that. When we look at this collection of works there are a lot of representations of different parkas. Are there any you would like to look at first?

Bobby Brower: So, in this photo, these white tusks on their coats, so those represent the tusks of the walrus. Long time ago, they were used to scare the walrus or maybe to make the walrus think you are a walrus. To get close to them when you’re out hunting. You’ll see them a lot on traditional parkas in the North Slope region, it’s really, really common, even nowadays. Some dance groups have dance shirts and they have the tusks.

Melissa Shaginoff: Interesting. What materials would they be made out of? Or what are the materials that you see represented, maybe in this piece?

Bobby Brower: Well, I think traditionally, the tusks would probably be made out of caribou skin, where it was like the whiter and thinner part of the hide. But nowadays we use calfskin, just because it’s readily available. We traditionally used caribou hide. We had reindeer corrals, I don’t know how long ago, maybe 100 years ago, but they would use reindeer to make fur parkas. But before then we always used caribou. I read in books that it would be fawn, because it’s not as heavy. Because in the winter they get so dense their furs are really thick. It would be harder to sew the hide. It would either have to be a summertime skin, where the heavy fur is shedding or the fawns and they would use that for parkas.

Also today seal skin is very expensive and really valuable. But back in the day, you were actually considered poor if you were using sealskin for your parka or your ski pants, because that meant you weren’t catching caribou, and when you had a caribou parka and ski pants that meant that you were a prominent hunter.

Melissa Shaginoff: Wow. Oh, I didn’t know about that.

Bobby Brower: And now it’s like the opposite because sealskin is highly prized and so expensive compared to a caribou hide that people don’t even really use anymore.

The piece with the man in the black and white, with the pipe in his mouth…yes that one.

His parka looks more like it would be reindeer. And I know Nome, one of my best friends, they have a reindeer corral in Nome. It could be, most likely, reindeer because a lot of the print that I see is black and white mixed, it’s reindeer hide. And then he has a white ruff which typically a man would use is wolf. And then, again, he has the tusks which would probably be made out of reindeer fur, just on a part that is all white. And like I was saying, it’s just a traditional style, like to help the hunter go out hunting and to be successful.

The woman’s parka is from the lower Arctic, that could be muskrat because we don’t get muskrats up here, up North. Back in the day, you would see traditional ground squirrels used but they are light brown, not like that. So I’m thinking hers might be maybe a muskrat or maybe it’s marmot? I’m just trying to think of a darker fur that would be pretty common in their area. Because typically women use muskrat. There’s some women that use land otter, but it’s more of a men’s parka fur.

Then the designs on her parka, by the tusks, those little things, we do them too. The seamstress that makes them, it’s kind of like their trademark of their sewing and they have meaning I am not sure of. Some areas, lower Arctic, Yupik people have all different kinds of meanings for different designs. But up here, ours are more like you make one style and it’s kind of like a family design, or a family trademark. So you know who’s family the parka belongs to, I can look at someone’s fur parka and look at their designs and then be like, “Oh, I know who made that. That’s so-and-so’s parka.” So I know who the seamstress is.

She’s wearing a wolverine ruff attached to her fur parka. And then her chin tattoos. Traditionally, up here, we did the three lines. But in our area the middle one is thicker and then the two outer ones or thinner. So these ones on her chin, they look like they’re all about the same size. So you could also, with the markings, tell what area someone is from.

Even the guy in the corner, in the brown parka, his is really traditional, that’s what you would see a lot of in historical pictures. And that was super common, just brown from the caribou, and then the tusks, and then the wolf or wolverine ruff. So that’s like, super traditional like a hunting parka. The couple’s parkas, they could be considered more ceremonial parks. This might be a wedding. Her’s is really fancy with the extra tassels on the shoulders and the tassels in the front and all the trim work. It’s a ceremonial parka that we use only for big celebrations, for the blanket toss, weddings, funerals.

A lot of times in our culture if someone passed away they would be buried in their parka. Today, we are trying to hold onto the parka making tradition. My mom told me, “If I ever die, don’t bury me with my fur parka. Give it to my kids so they can wear it.” 

Melissa Shaginoff: I can understand that, can you talk a little bit more about the tassels on the woman’s paka?

Bobby Brower: Well, the ones on the sides, that’s wolverine under the kupaks. They are from the neck of the wolverine. You have to collect those pieces in order to have so many on a coat. I think maybe four or six just come from one wolverine. So you have to collect them over time. So they are kind of to represent, “My husband is a prominent hunter, he provides for me.”

Melissa Shaginoff: Can you talk about how one becomes that prominent hunter?

Bobby Brower: So, in my culture, when a young boy goes out hunting for the first time, maybe like 10 to 12 years old. Their father brings them out, and they go and catch their first caribou or first seal, their first animal. That animal is given to an Elder, the whole thing. Their first catch, if you trap a wolverine, even though we don’t eat the meat, you give that whole animal to an Elder. Then your future hunting and trapping, you’ll be blessed with more. It’s one of our traditions when it comes to hunting and trapping. So that the young man will be successful for the rest of his life. And it seems like when men or young men go on a wrong path, it seems like they are not as successful in hunting or trapping. We always, after a whale is caught or after you go hunting we usually say a specific prayer after. Especially when it comes to whaling, as soon as they know that they were successful and they harvested a whale, they would pray on the radio. Thanking our creator, thanking god for the animal. Then it keeps on coming back.

I’ve also told my brother, “Don’t waste the animal. If you waste the animal and you don’t take care of it, and it just gets rotten, you’re not going to be successful if you don’t take care of your catch…then nothing is going to come, not until…you have the right attitude and mindset and you don’t waste.” We want to use it all, every single part. Last summer we went and picked up some seals that had died naturally and were washed up. After we cut the hide off the insides my brother loaded it back up on the truck and then he brought it back to the beach so that the other animals could eat the rest of the meat and everything.

Melissa Shaginoff: Were there any other ones that stuck out to you, in particular?

Bobby Brower: This one, this looks like she’s wearing a sunshine ruff. So that’s really traditional and common up here. This is fancy for a parka. Looks like it might be muskrat, maybe squirrels, because I know they do get ground squirrels (in Nome). But ground squirrels are a little lighter brown, so it could be maybe muskrat. She has like these candy cane looking things by the tusks. That’s really common, a common design that we put on our hoods on the back. But yeah, it’s kind of like all families, it’s more like a universal design from an area that you’re from. You can also see all this red, like on the arms and the tassels?

Melissa Shaginoff: Yes.

Bobby Brower: I don’t know if those are like ribbons on the tassels, but traditionally they would make some kind of alder dye and they would cover or wipe dye the back of the wolverine and it would dye it red on the back. Just to protect it so that it would last longer. You’ll see it in a lot of older fur parkas. I think it represents maybe the blood of the animal, but I don’t really know the meaning too much. That’s just what it reminds me of, but you see a lot of red. In my traditional fur parkas I use bright colors of leather, instead of red I’ll use purple, hot pink, blue, just to make it more contemporary. Something different. But it is just up to the seamstress.

Also the sunshine ruff here when you make it, it’s a double-sided ruff. So when you put it on it looks like a big sunshine, and the tips, like you could see on her, on the end of the ruff, on the white part, there’s little tiny black tips. Those are from the center of the wolf, there’s these long, black guard hairs. And you cut them into little tiny pieces, about maybe half an inch by maybe an inch, and then you use them for the edging on the ruff. So when you put it on, it’s like a sunshine. So the front would have wolf, the back would have wolf, and then you’d have wolverine on the inside, like this sunshine ruff. And it’s a very traditional ruff. A regular ruff, like the ones you’ve seen with the men, which is the wolf, it’s just a one-sided fur. So when you have a fancy parka like this, like a wedding ceremonial parka, it’ll have the sunshine ruff. It’s very time-consuming to make. It’s like a really expensive style or fancy. It’s like a Rolex of a watch.

Melissa Shaginoff: Haha it’s the Rolex of the ruffs.

Bobby Brower: Yes. That’s how I would explain it. Or a real high-end design purse, it’s a Louis Vuitton ruff.

Melissa Shaginoff: So when you say double-sided, that means that you have two sides of the fur, one that’s touching your face and then that’s facing out, right?

Bobby Brower: And in-between that, you traditionally use bearded seal, de-haired. You can also use caribou hide, but it’s the leather. We also use the bearded seal, we use them for skin boats. So if you’re going to use bearded seal for skin boats what they do is they cut the skin from the body and cut the fat off separately and they roll it in the fat of the skin. And then you put it in a warm room, not super warm, but it causes the fat, when you roll it up, over time that oil does something to the skin, I don’t know the name of the process, but I’ve done it before. But it seals all the pores. And then after maybe a couple of weeks you can just peel away the fur, it ferments that hide, and you peel away the fur. And then you just have the leather under, it de-hairs the fur naturally for you.

Melissa Shaginoff: Amazing. 

Bobby Brower: Then after you do that process, usually you bring it to the beach so you could just leave the hair in the water. And then you can clean your skin off because it’ll be really oily. But then you have a waterproof hide. After that you make a frame and you cut holes on the edges and then you tie it to a frame and then you pull it really tight. And it’ll stretch the skin out so it will be maybe three-eighths of an inch, or less, thick. And then you use that material. It’s the same material, you can make mukluks out of that material. It’s bleached sealskin so you can use it in between for your sunshine ruff. Because you want your ruff to be stiff, you need to stiffen the material…around your face. You would sew on the front and the back of that to make the sunshine ruff so it could stand up. The regular ruffs, they wouldn’t stand up.

Melissa Shaginoff: Wow. It’s so crazy. Because you look at this parka right here, and it represents so many different processes of each furs and then connects you to other technologies like the bearded skin boat. These processes are just so perfectly created for this environment, it’s pretty amazing.

Bobby Brower: And the designs remind me of quilting before there was quilting.

Melissa Shaginoff: Yeah, for sure. This piecing together of something. I have recently taken up learning how to do some fur sewing. You have to be so aware of the direction of the fur, which way it’s going. Because otherwise your patchwork is going to look all wonky. Right?

Bobby Brower: Oh my gosh, yeah. You don’t want to have one fur going this way and one going this way.It’s not going to look right.

Melissa Shaginoff: And so you started to learn to sew when you were 13? Who taught you to sew?

Bobby Brower: So I was in middle school and we had Iñupiaq language and sewing class. But it wasn’t until I had my first daughter, I was 18. And my aunt, Florence , she asked me if I wanted to learn how to sew the traditional parkas. I went from learning how to sew small things to something extravagant, like advanced. I learned really, really advanced sewing skills from her. And then I learned the easy stuff later. So she taught me how to stretch my skins, how to piece them together, to match the fur color up because when you make a traditional fur parka, you want the colors to match up really nicely so it looks professional.

It’s a giant project. Typically I tell people who want to, “Look at your family’s history, see if there’s a design your family used and start from there. Maybe change your pattern a little bit but start with a family design so that people recognize that. And then you’ll have a story to your fur parka.”

Melissa Shaginoff: The story of how one made a parka seems really important. 

Bobby Brower: Yes. Recently my dad sent me a picture of my aaka, aaka means grandma, wearing a fur parka and he’s like, “You should make this.” So I have. Now I’m thinking about making another replica, but a little different, for my girls to have that.

Melissa Shaginoff: Gosh, I like that story of having your first daughter and deciding to learn this very intense advanced sewing process. Not only just being a new mother but also becoming a parka maker of your family. And now you have your dad approaching you to replicate images of you aaka’s parka. That’s just a beautiful story, Bobby. Tsin’aen thank you for sharing that, you’re going to make me cry.

Bobby Brower: Yeah, you’re welcome. It’s really awesome that my dad wants me to do that. When I grew up my aaka actually had Parkinson’s disease so she was bedridden. A lot of the techniques my mom learned from her when she was just getting together with my dad and they got married. I think she was also 18 when she learned the techniques from my aaka, Emily Hobbson Brauer senior. My mom learned to sew from her. My aaka could make a parka in one day, not a fur parka, like a velveteen or a cotton parka. My aaka and aapa (grandpa) had 17 kids so my aapa was actually a trapper so he provided all the furs and she was the one sewing. So my dad said he remembered my aaka making him a parka in one day. My mom learned to cut up furs from her and then my mom taught me how to cut up furs like my aaka. And I always think that’s really special because I didn’t get to do it with my aaka, she died when I was really young. I’m so happy that my mom learned those techniques and she’s able to pass them down to me.

Melissa Shaginoff: Yeah, and it also in some ways makes you closer to her, to your grandma. Amazing tsin’aen. So would you mind talking about this one?

Bobby Brower: So the man’s design, I think is what I talked about before with the walrus, a hunting parka… So that you can get close to them and not scare them. His parka is mostly brown, and then it has the tusks right here. You put the hood on, even though there’s fur, that’s to keep you warm. But I think it helps with hunting so that those walrus don’t get scared off as easy. Because once a boat comes close, they’ll all start diving into the water. So he probably is using a sled or walking, to come close to the walrus. And those things are huge. Oh, my gosh, so scary. And obviously he was successful, he has a tusk in his hand.

Melissa Shaginoff: Oh, that’s so wild. I like that he has the little seal snow pants.

Bobby Brower: Oh, I know, those are so cool. You don’t see that very often anymore unless it’s for a Baby Contest. When we do our Top of the World Baby Contest in July every year. My aunt has made wolf pants, last year there was a little boy with a caribou parka, which was so cute with the tusks, and he had caribou pants on under. Probably it’s one of my favorite events of the year – to see these seamstresses make traditional clothing. Usually you get more points, it’s a contest so there’s first, second, third, and sometimes fourth place, but you win money. It’s all about – you get more points for being more traditional, so it’s really cool to see the seamstresses having to really think how I can make them so traditional and so cool.

Melissa Shaginoff: I love that. Seeing what is represented in these paintings and hearing you talk about making parkas for your children, making parkas to represent the traditional processes and materials. It’s pretty special.

Bobby Brower: Yeah, I don’t know if it is just like something ingrained in your DNA. Like being Iñupiaq, I’m like, “I want to really make this for my child, I want them to have warm boots, I want to keep them warm with a parka.” When I had my first daughter, my mom had brought home a partially done fancy fur parka, and that’s when I really fell in love with traditional fur parkas. Because it’s just like, “How can I finish this? I want my daughter to wear this.” Just fell in love with how beautiful it was, the fur and that it was traditional.

Melissa Shaginoff: That’s amazing. Tsin’aen, thank you so much Bobby. I know I took more of your time than I expected. But I really appreciate you. These are really great stories. And I think it’s really important for people to hear them and to know that people are still making parkas.