By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
As an interdisciplinary artist, Peter Williams (Yup’ik) strives to express and celebrate the oneness of all things. Under his fashion label Shaman Furs, Peter produces high-end fur garments. He also demonstrates the technique of sewing seal and sea otter fur at museums and universities.
Peter is a 2019 First Peoples Fund (FPF) Cultural Captial Fellow and was previously an FPF Artist in Business Leadership Fellow in 2018. He also received a 2018 grant from Rasmuson Foundation. He is based in Sitka, Alaska.
Clacking across the country by train, a woman seated with Peter at dinner asked what he did. From past experiences, he knew the answer could turn into an emotionally draining conversation. He said, “I hunt seals and sea otters.”
She was confused, even appalled, until he added, “Alaska Natives are exempt from the Marine Mammals Protection Act. We’re allowed to hunt marine mammals for food, clothing, and to make arts and crafts for sale.”
She accepted this, but there is much more to the answer.
Peter’s 2018 Artist in Business Leadership grant program led to opportunities in the New York high-end fashion scene. It was there Peter realized how vastly different and misunderstood his work is, this art form integrated with who he is — a Yup’ik man, practicing his cultural traditions and lifeways in rural Alaska.
After his experiences in New York, Peter shifted his focus to artisan boutiques.
“In an artisan boutique setting, people want to have those conversations,” he says. “They go to those spaces to be challenged by art.”
Developing this as a business model, he is blazing a trail on how to share what he does to make a livable wage while advocating for cultural rights.
“At the same time, I also need to share my knowledge of this traditional art form with my people,” he says. “I think those things have to go together.”
Peter’s aim with his 2019 Cultural Capital fellowship is a video showing his practice step by step for other tribal members, educating them on the lifeways that have enabled their people to survive for thousands of years in one of the world’s harshest climates. In a second video, intended for mainstream presentations, Peter wants to succinctly tell the story of how he, and hopefully other Native Alaskans, treat all created things with respect.
“I need to be able to visually show me in my environment, in my home, on the water, practicing my culture and how it’s integrated into my lifestyle,” he says, “and how my art and spirituality all are connected into that. I can visually show them what I do within a couple of minutes.”
Someday, these videos can answer the question of what Peter does and who he is — and how there is no separation between the two.