Stories

Luce Fellow Spotlight: Peter Williams

Williams is a hunter, artist, and designer based in Sheet’ká (Sitka, Alaska.) He solely owns and operates a fashion label called Shaman Furs and is an advocate for Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights.

“Most people outside of Alaska, especially non-Natives, don’t know that marine mammal harvest is legal, sustainable, and practiced by various Alaska Native cultures today,” says Williams. “The lack of awareness outside Alaska’s borders has bred an alarming degree of misinformation…”


In 2020, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) in partnership with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) awarded 10 $50,000 fellowships to support Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship is a 12-month, self-directed enrichment program that provides fellows with the funding and connections necessary to maximize their potential and spark significant innovation and transformation in their communities.


Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow:
PETER WILLIAMS

Peter Williams (Yup’ik) is among the first cohort of Luce Indigenous Knowledge fellows. Williams is a hunter, artist, and designer based in Sheet’ká (Sitka, Alaska.) He solely owns and operates a fashion label called Shaman Furs and is an advocate for Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights.

“Most people outside of Alaska, especially non-Natives, don’t know that marine mammal harvest is legal, sustainable, and practiced by various Alaska Native cultures today,” says Williams. “The lack of awareness outside Alaska’s borders has bred an alarming degree of misinformation, which has negative ramifications for both the legislative and commercial future of traditional Alaska Native craftwork.”

For more than a decade, Williams has taught Native and non-Native people about the traditional Alaska Native practices of hunting and utilizing marine mammals. He is an interdisciplinary artist and activist who shares his knowledge via fashion, film, and guest lectures.

Much of Williams work is independent and self-funded. He describes the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship as a gift that allowed him to continue creating and sharing his knowledge during the recent pandemic.

“I’ve been caught in a cycle of depleting my finances and energy to the point that I think about quitting, until I get motivated again,” says Williams. “But I have no other calling that drives and excites me the same way my subsistence advocacy and craftwork does.”

Community Background and Impact

Williams is Alaska Native, specifically he is Yup’ik, an arctic Indigenous people in southern and central Alaska with a population of 24,000. Williams grew up in the city of Sheet’ká (Sitka) where he still lives and works today.

“Reciprocity” by Peter Williams is made from Sockeye salmon skin. This piece was on display at the Bunnell Streets Arts Center in Homer, Alaska. Photo credit: Alyssa Russell

For thousands of years, Alaska Native people have hunted sea otters and sewn the skins of marine mammals for livelihood. Traditionally, these skins have been used for clothing, bedding, hats, and regalia.

Under federal law, only Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt sea otters and other mammals living along the coast. But, in recent years, many environmentalists have challenged this traditional practice citing animal cruelty.

As an artist and activist, Williams’s goal is to challenge these misconceptions by advocating for his people’s “inherent subsistence rights.” He disrupts non-Native views of conversation by sharing his knowledge of this traditional cultural practice both inside and outside the classroom.

Since 2012, Williams has taught high school and college students in Alaska and across the country about subsistence marine mammal harvesting, processing, and crafting. In 2016, he produced and was featured in the short documentary Harvest: Quyurciq to educate mainstream audiences about Alaska Native sea otter harvest and craftwork.

During the fellowship period, Williams planned to develop a curriculum to go along with this 20-minute documentary in the hopes of bringing “Native knowledge into mainstream environmental science classrooms.” Williams’s goal is to create an experiential learning opportunity, texturizing the film and curriculum with hand-sewn seal and sea otter fur pieces infused with Indigenous ways of knowing.

Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented Williams from safely meeting with Elders and students. As a result, he was unable to finish writing this curriculum or developing this education tool kit. Instead, Williams decided to turn his attention back to art.

Fashion, Art and Activism

Fashion designer Peter Williams walks runway with models for the close of his Shaman Furs collection fashion show at 26 Bridge Street on May 6, 2016, during Fashion Week Brooklyn’s 10 year anniversary. Photo credit: Shawn Punch Photography

Williams believes that fashion and art have the potential to challenge “mainstream, non-Indigenous views of conservation.” In 2011, Williams founded Shaman Furs, an independently-owned fashion label.

Through Shaman Furs, Williams designs and creates sea otter and seal clothing, including hats, vests, skirts, and jewelry. He hunts, skins, sews, and markets all the designs himself.

In 2015, Williams premiered his work at NYC Fashion Week, an annual event that draws top designers, models and celebrities. Williams hopes to use fashion to draw attention to Yup’ik inherent right to live a traditional lifestyle in the present day.

“Yup’ik culture embodies reciprocity between human, plant, animal, and spiritual worlds.” In the Artist Statement on his website, Williams states: “Before a hunt I smudge and pray, asking the animal for its life; after the hunt I honor the animal by giving it its last drink of water per Yup’ik custom.”

Williams hand-sews all his garments using the animals and fish he hunts. He says, “I bind the human, natural and spiritual realms into traditional and new art forms, creating a capsule of Indigenous knowledge and a warning siren to the balance of humanity that ignores it.”

Recently, Williams has started to expand his artwork and activism beyond the fashion industry. During the fellowship period, he experimented with a new form of painting, using fur and animal skins. These fur and fish skin paintings are handsewn into art tapestries and stretched over canvases for display at museums and art galleries.

“My hope is that [these pieces] will be a start to evolving the repetitive, anti-hunting criticisms I’ve heard from non-Natives throughout the years.” Williams used funds from the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship to purchase material to create these pieces.

The pandemic delayed the opening of Williams’s new collections at All My Relations Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota until early summer 2021.

Gratitude

“Why Did I Cry Making This Symbol?” by Peter Williams is a fur painting made from sea otter that is currently on display at the Bunnell Street’s Art Center in Homer, Alaska. Photo credit: Alyssa Russell

He says the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship allowed Williams to work on these collections. It also allowed him to start learning Yugtun (the Yup’ik language) and participate in art talks online.

“This fellowship is such a gift, especially during a time when so many people are struggling,” says Williams. “During the pandemic, this fellowship gave me the opportunity to breathe and reflect upon my work culturally.”

The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowships brings Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers together to learn from one another and support each other. As Williams points out, “there’s no blueprint” for the work he or the other fellows are doing. He observes that it is comforting to collaborate with other Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers experiencing some of the same challenges and questions in their own communities.

“This fellowship will have reverberations for many generations,” says Williams. “I’m very grateful, humbled and honored to be in a part of this inaugural cohort. Quyana.”