I’m not defined by where I came from, but how far I’ve come. I started by living for five years in a 25x25 foot cabin with 10-square-feet of workspace. Now, twelve years later, I have an amazing 900-square-foot workshop. If you told me twelve years ago that I’d be making a living off harvesting, skinning, and sewing seal and sea otter, I would have said that sounds impossible, especially given the governmental restrictions at that time. But the laws have changed, and now I can, without fear, legally create lovely works of art for anyone in the U.S.
– Christy Ruby, 2021
Christy Ruby (Tlingit) is an Alaska Native master furrier from the Kéet Gooshi Hít (Killer Whale Dorsal Fin) House near Haines, Alaska. Working out of Ketchikan, Alaska, Ruby’s unique sea mammal creations are the result of years of determination to freely harvest without prosecution and acquired sewing skills.
Working with legally harvested sea mammal fur requires much patience and hard work, especially since Ruby must first hunt the animals she uses. “For sea otter, everything starts with a bone chilling hunt because winter is the best time to harvest sea otter,” she said in an April 2021 interview with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. “During summer, the fur lightens up with exposure to the sun but by winter those hairs have molted out and the rich dark brown prime fur glistens. Once the animal is taken it must be skillfully skinned, salted, then stored rolled-up and fleshed later. When ready to flesh, the 30-pound pelt must be soaked in a bath of cool water before I can start working with it,” Ruby explained.
Although talented in graphic arts, and sculpting coins for private mints, she didn’t dabble in furs until 2010. “At first, I made a few fur purses to go along with seal skins I was selling to local Native elders,” she said. “But much to my surprise, people liked the quality, durability, and uniqueness of my early products and fashions.” This compelled Ruby to make more unique items, including seal skin mittens, multi-fur scarves, and three different hat styles.
Through much trial, error, and financial expense, Ruby later pioneered the process of creating dyed sea otter fur, which is a hallmark of her fashions today. “So far, I am the only person in the United States to offer several amazing sea otter fur colors like white, blue and red,” she noted. “But I am always wary, because others are watching and looking to replicate my designs and colors.”
Ruby began entering her fur fashions into prominent Native American art shows beginning in 2015. Shortly thereafter, her inspiring works garnered attention and awards, including the (2017) Innovation Award at the Cherokee Art Market (Tulsa, Oklahoma), (2017) Best of Show in Contemporary Fashion at the Santa Fe Indian Market (Santa Fe, New Mexico), (2019) First Place in Textiles at the Santa Fe Indian Market, among other accolades.
One of these exhibited works, the Taa Daa Capelet, was accessioned into the permanent collections of the IACB’s Sioux Indian Museum (Rapid City, South Dakota) in 2021 (R.2021.01.01). The capelet is a multicomponent creation and masterwork of the furrier’s art. The outer surface is composed entirely of sea otter fur. The middle section is made of seal that Ruby harvested in Ketchikan. Polar bear fur from Shishmareff, Alaska, is tufted in the attached dentalium shells, which provides a sense of movement when the capelet is worn. The base of the capelet is rimmed with an exquisite band of silver fox fur harvested by an Alaska Native elder from Kotzebue, Alaska. Tlingit artist Wayne Grant carved the walrus ivory beads and Tlingit artist Benjamin Schliefman handcrafted a solid silver Tlingit war shield (tináa) clasp from a sketch by Ruby. Shoulder pads and hand-sewn blue satin lining complete this beautiful work.
The Taa Daa Capelet is featured in the IACB’s (2021) consumer education brochure Sustainable Tradition: The Beauty of the Northern Sea Otter in Alaska Native Art, which highlights the inherent cultural importance of sea otters in Alaska Native cultures.
Ruby is a member of the IACB's Source Directory of American Indian and Alaska Native Owned and Operated Arts and Crafts Businesses, which is an online resource for authentic Native American art.
To learn more about Ruby and her artistic work, please visit her website: https://crubydesigns.com.
- Lars Krutak, PhD, Indian Arts and Crafts Board