Tannery Means Business, Culture for Sitka Tribe

Photo by Ed Ronco, KCAW - Sitka

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s tannery is up and running in its own building, at the far end of Halibut Point Road. And now that the business has bought a new home, tribal officials are hoping for its long-term success.

The Sitka Tribal Tannery isn’t new. It began in 2004. But this year, it bought its own building in the 4600 block of Halibut Point Road. And with the help of grants from the federal government, some new equipment is on the way.

Officials with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, which runs the tannery, say they hope this is the beginning of a long life for the operation.

James Young is hoping for the same thing. He’s been working at the tannery for a little more than a year. He’s standing next to an enormous vat of liquid and fur.

Photo by Ed Ronco, KCAW - Sitka

“What I have in here two black bears and a brown bear and this is in a pickle,” he says, reaching in and grabbing the brown bear. He slings it up onto a table, spreads it out, and then moves it over to a device called a round knife. He says he spends about four hours a day at this machine, shaving the leather part of the hide down to a uniform thickness.

“You’ve got to know just about how hard to push or pull against it. It takes a little bit of time to learn how far you can pull each time you pull, how big of scallops you can make,” he says.

Away from the roundknife is a small room hidden by a sheet of plastic. Some of the completed hides hang there: Otters, seals, brown bears, a polar bear.

“This was a very fun animal to work on,” he says, holding out the white furry hide. “He’s almost nine-foot long. We only measure from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. This bear’s actually a lot longer than nine feet.”

Right now, Young and another man, Russell James, work full-time at the tannery, with a technician on call. But the tribe estimates that 28 part-time jobs could be created by the tannery’s operation – not at the tannery, but further down the line, in the form of people who can use the tannery’s products to produce their own work.

“We’re producing hides for grandmas and aunties and cousins who live out in the villages or other cities for them to do high quality work and make high quality garments for their kids, their grandchildren, or whoever it is that they’ll be making garments for,” he says.

The tribe began getting requests to start a tannery in the mid-1990s, says Mike Miller, a tribal council member who also sits on the tribe’s marine mammal commission.

“Quite possibly at the time it was more of a cultural component than a business component,” Miller said. “To blend the two together, and timing wise with the sea otter situation, and concerns about overpopulation, this is poised to be able to help address that as well.”

To say nothing, he says, of employment for tribal citizens.

“If they can take a couple hides and turn it into product that they can sell for a good price, then it could be a sizable portion of their annual income,” Miller said. “Those are the things we’re looking at right now. As we hit our stride, of course the tribe is interested in having things that are continually self-sustaining and help put money back into the tribe.”

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Ed Ronco is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.

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