Reconnecting history: Profile on Susan Malutin

This is the fifth in a series of profiles on the 2013 Community Spirit Awards recipients. In upcoming issues of e-Spirit, First Peoples Fund will continue to introduce to you the remarkable artists and culture bearers who are receiving the honor this year.

Susan Malutin was determined to learn how to sew traditional Native Alaskan clothing and beading—so much so that she traveled, tracked down and convinced elders in multiple Alaskan communities to teach it to her.

Malutin, who is one of this year’s Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award recipients, lives on Kodiak Island in Alaska and has spent the last 30 years mastering the lost art of traditional skin sewing and helping pass it on to younger generations.

She is at the center of a revitalization of the Native culture and art of the Alutiiq people that has rejuvenated elders, prompted the building of a Native museum and helped facilitate programs to bring back the Native language.

“It is a culture that was dormant for such a long time,” she said, adding that oppression and an influx of Russian culture helped bury much of their traditional language and culture.

While Malutin worked for the state of Alaska, she traveled to other communities and always carried sinew and a piece of fur with her. When she met someone who knew how to do traditional skin sewing, she asked to be taught.

“I would corner them,” she said, laughing.

Eventually, she began to travel all over the world—to places like Russia, Finland and Denmark—to research and spend time at museums that have pieces of clothing and artifacts from the island.

Even though artifacts from their region have been located in other museums, it would take great time, money and effort to borrow or acquire them for Alaskan museums, she said. While it’s fortunate that someone has the pieces of history, many of the artifacts are not even displayed at some of the museums around the world. In Finland, Malutin viewed artifacts from her homeland that had been in storage for 140 years.

“We were some of the first Natives to get to see them,” she said.

It has still been an honor to view the work, she said. With the help of others, she has been able to recreate pieces for display in the island’s first Native museum. It opened 14 years ago and was a major step in renewing the community’s interest and support of the old traditions.

Community member Linda Ross said Malutin is inspirational and has dedicated great time and effort in sharing the heritage of the Alutiiq people.

“She is in many ways, bringing a transformation to the community of Kodiak Island,” she said. “The adults and children of Alutiiq heritage have been encouraged and have grown in their knowledge of their heritage by all of Susan's efforts.”

April G.L. Counceller, of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, said Malutin is a brilliant artist.

“But her overall passion is to support the Alutiiq community,” she said.

There is still so much work to be done, Malutin believes.

“I wish our people could see what fine work was made,” she said, including fur hats, slippers, infant boots, mittens and dance boots. “It’s just incredible… the intricacy and time it took to make these beautiful items they wore every day.”

Malutin continues to teach and travel. She participates in “Culture Week,” a time devoted by each village school to cultural activities, and she helps lead cultural activities and skin sewing at women’s retreats, the museum and multi-cultural programs on the island. The cultural renewal has united generations and their communities, she said.

“It’s given elders encouragement and renewal of spirit,” she said. “It reconnects them with their history and their childhood.”

Malutin said she was honored to receive the award and that her greatest hope is to pass on the attributes of her ancestors, as much as their traditions.

“I want to show the young people they can carry on those characteristics that made our culture strong,” she said. “They can use it in all aspects of their lives by their attitudes and actions and how they role model.”