Elsie Ratcliff: Traditional Native Artist

Contributed by Charice Chambers

It’s summertime in the Valley and locals know the drill: Aunt Suzie, Uncle Ben and a whole raft of guests are about to descend upon each of us, turning us automatically into tour guides. In that capacity, don’t forget Matsu Senior Services Gift Shop. It’s a great place to find a variety of goods including local handcrafted native arts.

Elsie Ratcliff, a local native senior, has a wide selection of beaded, skin and jewelry items available at the gift shop. Elsie grew up in Kotzebue, spending much of her time with her grandmother. Sensing Elsie’s interest in the skin work she did, Grandma soon put Elsie to work, prepping and softening skins for parkas and mukluks. Because there was no tanner in Kotzebue, Elsie learned first-hand all the secrets of creating soft supple and long-lived skin products. As a child, Elsie wore parkas lined with muskrat. The parka was worn fur side in for warmth and skin side out. Because skins were easily soiled, bright fabrics were used as an outer cover thus keeping the skin clean. Elsie also wore lined mukluks made by her grandmother.

In those days, subsistence living was required. There was limited access to store-bought food. Because of the cost of shipping (everything was barged up to Kotzebue) and fuel, few could afford such luxuries. The villagers simply had to hunt and fish to survive. As Elsie says with a very stern look on her face, “subsistence was very serious business.”

Elsie’s grandfather on her dad’s side worked as a government reindeer herder, so drying reindeer meat and berry picking were always a part of the summer as was fishing. The family would load up Dad’s car and make a 50 plus mile trip to the ocean for shee fish. Salmon was also a dietary staple.

In spite of raising her seven children, Elsie was able to attend UAA and earn and associate degree in art, her true passion. However, she had to earn a living, and worked for thirty years at Prudhoe Bay, for Doyan and later NANA where she was a supervisor. She also worked at Alaska Native Hospital in a supervisory capacity as well. With all this to do, she still found time for jewelry making and skin sewing.

At one point, her brother, John Curtis, taught her to carve. This involved working with baleen and all types of ivory. Like most modern carvers, Elsie wore personal protective equipment while carving. Goggles, a mask and a vacuum suit were all a part of carving. They were necessary because the fine dust created while carving and polishing ivory and baleen can cause debilitating lung problems as well as resulting the cutting of the retina. Early carvers always carved outside where the wind could blow away the debris as they worked, reducing serious health issues. Elsie produced many earrings, heart and ulu pendants under her brother’s tutelage. She also crafted solid ivory finger rings inlayed with mastodon. She was proud of the smooth, shiny finish on all her projects. The finish was achieved as a result of many hours of fine sanding and polishing. Some artists save time by simply spraying on a smooth polish, but Elsie is a traditionalist and would never use this shortcut.

Because carving requires extremely strong hands, Elsie is doing much less of it today, and focusing on skin sewing. She makes wallets, purses, cell phone holders, and other items; most of them are beaded as well. Recently, she has produced a number of mukluks for babies and young children. Originally, she used patterns garnered from other skin sewers, but now she makes her own patterns. Most of her mukluks are spotted fur or harbor seal. She likes to use mouton to line them for warmth and softness and always includes felting between all her seams. This gives the finished product, color and style, but it also keeps seams from puckering if the shoe should get wet.

Drop by the gift shop to see many of Elsie’s creations, as well as those by many other local native artists. You and your guests will be glad you did.

Located at 1132 South Chugach Street in Palmer, across from Palmer Junior Middle School, the gift shop is open to both seniors and the public, Monday through Friday, from 10 AM to 2 PM.