With spring whaling around the corner, sinew thread makers are hard at work

Diana Martin (left) and Nancy Leavitt (right) at the start of an ivalu workshop, where people can come learn how to make thread from caribou sinew. Feb. 2, 2019. (Photo by  Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

In Utqiaġvik, spring whaling is still about two months away, but preparations are already in high gear.

That includes making a traditional thread called “ivalu” from caribou tendons, which are used to sew together the sealskin boats that whalers take out on the ice.

Diana Martin was the first to arrive at the Iñupiat Heritage Center for an ivalu workshop that would go on for most of the day. She’s a curator at IHC and led the way back to the artifact storage area, where she keeps the sinews she’s working on.

Diana Martin splits caribou tendons. Eventually the split strands will be made into a braided thread used to sew together the sealskin boats that whalers take out to hunt the bowhead whale. Feb. 2, 2019. (Ravenna Koenig/ Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“I have my sinews on the floor because they need to stay cool,” she said, taking several caribou tendons out of a plastic bag.

The work actually started months ago — collecting tendons from family members who brought home caribou.

Then they had to be dried outside in the cold for several weeks. Now they almost look like stalks of a plant: beige and kind of stringy. They crunch when you split them apart.

After they’re split, the strands will be braided into thread.

This whole process takes a ton of time and energy. One skin boat can require over 50 tendons. And some years there are a lot of boats to make thread for.

“At one time there was 17 … that were sewn in one spring,” remembered Martin.

Five of Martin’s 12 siblings are whaling captains, so for the past two decades she’s had her hands full almost every year making sinew thread for their skin boats. She also lends a hand to other captains when they ask her.

She was one of the teachers at the workshop. The other was Nancy Leavitt, an elder and a whaling captain’s wife.

Flora Patkotak, who attended the workshop led by Diana Martin and Nancy Leavitt, holds a braided thread made from caribou sinew. Feb. 2, 2019. (Ravenna Koenig/ Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Workshops like this one have been held for the past few years to teach those who are interested in how to make the thread.

“We learn how to split the sinew, we learn how to clean it, for the ladies who would like to learn,” said Leavitt.

Leavitt said the splitting stage is especially difficult because the tendons are tough. Sometimes it takes two people to pull them apart.

“It builds up your muscles,” said Leavitt. “It’s like you go to the gym, except your arms work a lot and your feet work a lot.”

That raised the question: How do your feet work?

“Like this,” said Leavitt, stepping on one part of the tendon and using her arms to work on splitting a part of it away.

She actually enjoys the work, in part because it’s so all-consuming.

“Everything just falls into place,” she said. “The problems, the stress, the thoughts you have. Most of them just disappear.”

And all the effort pays off when whaling crews get home safely with a new season of whale to feed the community.

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