Master Alutiiq/Inupiaq artist to teach salmon skin sculpture and jewelry workshops this weekend

June Pardue specializes in grass weaving, fish skin tanning, sea mammal sewing, jewelry making, beading and painting

June Pardue is an Alutiiq/Sugpiaq and Inupiaq multimedia artist and teacher, specializing in grass weaving, fish skin tanning, sea mammal sewing, jewelry making, beading and painting. For more than 50 years, she has dedicated herself to reviving, carrying on, and teaching these practices and materials of her ancestors to anyone interested in learning.

“A motto my parents instilled in me is to remain teachable because we don’t know everything and there is something to learn every day,” she shared.

Pardue has taught and demonstrated weaving, fur sewing, and beading in university, museum and school settings, including as an adjunct professor for the University of Alaska–Kenai Peninsula College, University of Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Pacific University, and Mat-Su College in Palmer, and has taught at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage since it opened in 1999. She has served as artist-in-residence at Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson Museum and has given numerous workshops on sewing and tanning fish skin, gut, and pinguat (traditional Alutiiq beaded headdress) making. Pardue is also a cultural developer and instructor for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District and an Elder Culture Bearer for the Knik Tribal Council.

Since the start of the pandemic, she has taught online fish skin tanning workshops to students from a variety of ages, areas, and backgrounds — fashion designers, museum curators, conservators, tanners, traditional native councils, Native corporations, wellness programs, from Italy, Canada, Finland, Scotland, and the United States, including numerous Alaskan Native communities.

“It’s fun to gather with individuals who are genuinely enthusiastic and interested in turning fish skins into leather,” she shared. “We have a renaissance happening in the arts right now and I’m so grateful for the various places that want me to teach and that there are students who want to learn. I’m especially excited that young people are wanting to do this too because they will be the generation who remembers that their elders tanned fish skins.”

Museums nationwide have collected Pardue’s work — beaded headdresses, grass baskets, grass socks, jewelry, and Alutiiq garments are in permanent collections at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, the Kodiak History and Alutiiq museums, Palmer Historical Museum, Sheldon Jackson Museum, Autry National Center in Los Angeles, the Arctic Studies Center in Maine, and in numerous private collections. She also sells salmon skins as a distributor, using her years of expertise to source quality tanned and dyed salmon skins from around the world.

Pardue has given lectures and demonstrations at the United Nations in New York, the Smithsonian’s renowned FolkLife Festival in Washington, D.C., the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, and the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. She is frequently invited to remote locations throughout Alaska and connects with people from all over the world to reclaim, revitalize, and reinvent cultural practices that were nearly lost during long and devastating periods of violence. Among the numerous awards she has received, she most recently received Museums Alaska’s 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Pardue’s lifetime passion for her culture’s arts started at the age of 12 when she began learning from her mother and a neighbor how to weave Alutiiq grass baskets.

“When I was growing up, no one was doing any traditional art,” she shared. “My mom encouraged me to learn so I could survive and make a living.”

While she was in her 20s and 30s, the Alaska State Council on the Arts and UAA Fairbanks extension program reached out, asking if she would revive the art of Aleut/Alutiiq basket weaving.

“At the time, there were very few weavers in the state and that’s how I got my start professionally as a weaver,” she shared. “Now there are many more weavers. Today there’s a movement to revive this art, which I’m delighted to see and be a part of.”

Born in Old Harbor Village in Kodiak, for the past years, Pardue and her husband have been residents of the community of Sutton, north of Palmer. In her mobile home studio, she works in a variety of mediums, including making earrings, barrettes, slippers, baby mukluks, and sewing bags from her tanned fish skin, selling them at markets, festivals, and online.

Her passion for the medium of fish skins began more than 20 years ago while she was visiting the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. There, she saw the collection of tanned salmon skin articles — mukluks, boots, bags, and parks. She became fascinated and wanted to learn how to tan salmon skins in the traditional Alaska Native way. With no one to teach her and no readily available recipes for salmon skin tanning solutions, she taught herself. Eager to create an environmentally friendly recipe that aligns with her Native values, she and her husband developed their own techniques and recipes using natural, local ingredients, like alder and willow bark.

“That is part of our culture, that we honor the earth and keep it clean,” she shared. “We want to protect our earth, ocean, land, and Native values.”

As she experimented, she learned many things — the age of the salmon affects the quality of the leather, using alder used for tannic acid produces a tougher, darker leather, and that spring is the best time of year to harvest willow bark.

The process of tanning salmon can take up to three months, and includes several stages, from cleaning the salmon well to get rid of the fat, to washing, rinsing and scraping the skin, to collecting willow bark and cooking that down.

“I start off with a weak homemade tannin using new-growth willow and strengthen the solution over a period of 10 to 21 days,” she shared. “It produces a beautiful, soft leather and we can dilute and dispose of the tannin easily and safely.”

The salmon she uses is harvested by her husband fishing in areas like Whittier and Kenai, and relatives who fish in Kodiak and Seward and send her their salmon skins. She prefers silver salmon caught early spring for how pliable it is and her tools include an old ulu made from old stone for scraping the fish scales off and to separate the flesh from the skin, and clam shells to scrape the oil off from inside the skin.

Eager to nurture in others a fascination in using salmon skins, and also as a way for families to interact, Pardue is offering two workshops at Homer Council on the Arts this Friday and Saturday, open to ages 8 to adult.

Scott Bartlett, Homer Council on the Arts director has been familiar with Pardue’s work for years, including her recent participation in the salmon exhibit at the Pratt Museum.

“Salmon leather is such a unique and tactile and visceral thing and the fact that it can be worked with in such different ways is fascinating,” he said. “There are other artists in the area working with salmon skin and I’m eager to see the unique style that June uses with it.”

On Friday, Jan. 13, 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., participants will learn how to create a soft sculpted seal using salmon leather, a traditional and sustainable hand-sewn creature. Under 18 $22 ($20 HCOA members); Adult: $32 ($30 HCOA members)

On Saturday, Jan. 14, 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., participants will create a pair of salmon leather and beadwork earrings. Under 18: $32 ($30 HCOA members); Adult: $55 ($50 HCOA members).

Register online at, by phone, 907-235-4288 or in person at HCOA at 355 West Pioneer Avenue. HCOA is open Monday to Friday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

These workshops are made possible in part through a Journey To What Matters Grant by the CIRI Foundation.

Photo provided 
Salmon leather soft sculpted seals by June Pardue.

Photo provided Salmon leather soft sculpted seals by June Pardue.

Salmon leather beaded earrings by June Pardue (Photo provided)

Salmon leather beaded earrings by June Pardue (Photo provided)

June Pardue’s fish skins in tanning baths of birch and willow bark. (Photo provided)

June Pardue’s fish skins in tanning baths of birch and willow bark. (Photo provided)

June Pardue with salmon skins during a workshop. (Photo provided)

June Pardue with salmon skins during a workshop. (Photo provided)