The Native people of Alaska (USA), known generically as Inuit or Eskimos, live in one of the most challenging environments of our planet. Protective clothing often means the difference between life and death. The Yup’ik are an Eskimo people living in southwestern Alaska, where temperatures range from 20 degrees Celsius in the summer to -14 in winter. Yup’ik women are responsible for clothing production in their communities; Yup’ik girls traditionally cannot marry until they have mastered skills such as hide preparation and sewing. Over the centuries they have developed a distinctive style of clothing that is insulated and durable, waterproof, wind resistant, and comfortable to wear even while hunting or fishing.
The handmade woman’s parka (TRC 2020.0400) was produced around the 1980s in Emmonak (population 762), near the Bering Sea in Alaska. In 1986 it was given as a gift by a Yup’ik woman to the gussuk (white man), Michael J. Anderson, a lay Roman Catholic worker at the St. Mary’s Mission School, near the confluence of the Yukon and Andreafsky rivers. It was a thank-you for accompanying a group of boys back to their villages, some 80 miles from the boarding school. A parka (an Inuit word meaning “animal skin”, first written down in English in 1625) is a traditional hooded jacket, frequently hip length, made most often of caribou skin (either from the wild caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) or the domesticated Rangifer tarandus taranduse, or seal skin.
The parka has an inner lining of blue, floral factory-produced cloth, with a large pocket on the left side. There is a metal zipper with a decorative copper-coloured metal pull in the shape of an arrow head, and two braids of yellow, green and orange yarn ending in pom-poms near the collar. Both the cuffs and bottom of the jacket are decorated with factory manufactured beads and strips of tan-coloured artifical fu. The fur hood was sewn on separately, as was the ruff of wolf fur (made of over twenty separate pieces of skin sewn together). Wolf and/or wolverine fur is often used for ruffs, as they shed snow and ice more quickly than other furs. The fur hood has patches of seal skin.
The parka in the TRC collection was designed for everyday use. More elaborately decorated parkas, called fancy parkas or atkupiak, are worn on special occasions. Fancy parka designs and decorative elements (special stitches, tassels, beading, fur strips and hide shapes) often point to specific historical events, villages or bands.
Caribou is preferred for parkas (and also trousers) as its hollow hair structure provides added insulation. The thinner, more flexible calf skins were used, while cow skins were utilised for mittens, trousers and socks. Winter boots were made from the thicker hides from the legs and backs of bull caribou (usually taken in the autumn, when the skin was strongest). In the past parkas were also made from fish skins (including different salmon such as Oncorhynchus keta or Oncorhynchus kisutch) or charr (Salvelinus malma), and from bird skins.
In addition to parkas, Yup’ik women traditionally made individually fitted skin trousers, socks, mittens and boots (called mukluks, another Inuit word that has entered the English language) for their families. Their tools include a small, crescent shaped woman’s knife called ulu, to first clean the hides, and needles made from caribou bones or antlers, or walrus ivory. Thimbles were made from sheep or caribou bones, and thread from animal sinews.
Today many Yup’ik wear western clothing or a mix of western and traditional dress, though traditional clothing is highly respected. This change started in the mid-18th century, reportedly encouraged by Russian traders, who hoped to increase fur stocks this way. Now there is a serious effort to develop and preserve Yup’ik culture and values while adapting to modern challenges such as climate change. Yup’ik languages are taught alongside English in schools, together with lessons in subsistence skills from elders and experts. Teenagers are taught how to make parkas, seal skin mukluks, and fur caps, in addition to learning how to build traditional sleds and boats. In this way the Yup’ik people will not only survive, but flourish.
Saturday, 15th February 2020, by Shelley Anderson
In Memoriam Michael J. Anderson (1938-2020)
- Alaskan Native Knowledge Network (http://www.ankn.uaf.edu)
- “The Art and Technique of Inuit Clothing” by Betty Kobayashi Issenman, McCord Museum, 2007 (download here)
- Personal interview with Michael J. Anderson, December 2019