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Marlene Nielsen

Reviving the art of salmon skin

Salmon skin is a traditional sewing material for Alaskan Native people in many parts of the state. However, few artists still practice the craft. Marlene Ann Nielsen is Yupik from Kokhanok, Alaska, located on the south shore of Lake Iliamna, which is the largest lake in the state. Nielsen is self-taught in the art of making baskets, wallets, dolls, masks, and jewelry with sockeye salmon skin. She experienced much trial and error while learning how to preserve fish skin, which she started in 2002. “I feel there are not a whole lot of people that do work with fish skin, so I wanted to try to bring it back.” Nielsen feels using fish skin for art is an extension of the subsistence activities that she takes part in with her family. “We put away at least 200 fish for winter use. We smoke and dry the fish. We try to use the entire animal.”

Historically, Alaskan Native women made the skins into usable leather that was warm, durable, waterproof, and windproof. The processed skins from many different types of fish were used to construct everything from bags, boots, and parkas, to  quivers, tent coverings, and blankets. Due to the break in this tradition, contemporary artists have had to relearn the processes used to prepare and craft fish skin items. Some artists have consulted museum collections, others have learned on their own by experimenting with the materials. 

Nielsen values teaching what she has learned within her own family and to others in her community and beyond. She now teaches classes around Alaska. “I love teaching what I have taught myself, so that the use of fish skin would not be lost again.”

IFAM thanks the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) and the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) for nominating Marlene to join the 2021 Santa Fe Market.