Arctic Clothing of North America: Alaska, Canada, Greenland by J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat, and Robert Storrie


Montreal : McGill-Queen's University Press , 2005 . 160 pp.

In the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland, clothes made out of caribou, fish, seal skins, and bird feathers have been used by Inuit for a long time, providing protection against the cold and expressing identity. This book compiles 26 contributions that were presented at a conference on Arctic clothing held at the British Museum in London in 2001. Contributors include Natives and non-Native people, anthropologists, curators, artists, and historians. The richness of the book results from bringing together these different backgrounds, experiences, and approaches. The preface and the introduction are authored by Jonathan King. Veronica Dewar, President of Pauktuutit Inuit Women's Association of Canada, then presents a political keynote address, sharing her concerns about the protection of Inuit knowledge and intellectual property rights. The book is divided into five parts with contributions of unequal quality.

Part one focuses on personal narratives. Jana Harcharek, an Inupiaq woman from Barrow, first presents her recollections from when she was still a little girl carried on the back of her grandmother. Elder Elena Charles from Bethel recalls how she used to make parkas and boots of various styles for her family, combining traditional techniques with new materials. Dixit Masak Dayo, an Inupiaq from Manley Hot Springs, explains how he was involved in a healing process through beading, making, and wearing traditional clothing. Finally, Chuna McIntyre, an artist from Eek takes himself as an example to describe and explain design elements of central Yup'ik fancy garments.

Part two of the book deals with the materials and technology used in Arctic clothing. Nigel Meeks and Caroline Cartwright consider the characteristics of caribou and sealskin clothes. Their examination of external and internal structural features of hair is made by scanning electron microscopy. High-resolution images indicate the perfect suitability of the caribou and seal furs for Arctic clothing. Caribou hair has an open cellular structure that makes it an efficient thermal insulator, whereas seal hair is smooth and dense giving it water-repelling qualities. Frederikke Petrusen describes different materials used in north, east, and west Greenland. She regrets the contemporary decline in the knowledge of preparation of fresh skins and invites the younger generations to show their sewing skills more openly. Artist Fran Reed describes and compares four garments of fish skin as they are made by Alutiiq, Yup'ik, Deg Hit'an, and Gwitch'in peoples from Alaska. Arctic char, salmon, eel, and burbot skins are stitched very effectively with sinew and/or grass. Drawing on many interviews with elders, Ann Fienup-Riordan provides an excellent paper on the use of several species of grass in Yup'ik traditions. She elegantly bridges technology, material culture, temporality, and cosmology, showing the central role of grass in twining things. In contrast, Shepard Krech's paper on the use of birds in food, material culture, and ceremonial contexts among the “Eskimos” remains superficial. Krech rightly observes a lack of research on birds and Arctic peoples, but he does not provide new ethnographical materials and even ignores some fundamental sources (e.g. the work of Eleazar Meletinsky, and Vladimir Randa). Moreover, by taking birds as a general category, he underestimates the specificity of particular birds such as ravens that are so deeply associated with the creation of tattoos that evoke sewing and could protect people in crucial temporal transitions such as the transformation of a girl into a woman.

Part three focuses on styles and techniques employed in the making of Arctic clothing. Authors not only show the great knowledge of seamstresses but also their ability in incorporating new techniques. Karen Pedersen from Sermiarsuit provides a detailed account of the reproduction of a replica of one of the 15th-century women's costumes found in 1972 at Qilakitsoq (West Greenland). She uses this experience to compare the old skin preparation and sewing techniques with those of today. Leah Aksaajuq Otak from Igloolik presents a detailed and illustrated step-by-step description of the preparation of caribou skins. She provides the Inuktitut terms for each step and many details about the tools and about the suitable periods to get the skins. The paper authored by Rhoda Akpaliapik Karetak, originally from Coral Harbour, deals with the amauti, a parka with a big pouch on its back that is still very frequently used by women to carry their babies. Karetak illustrates the various styles of amautiit that can be found in Nunavut. The last three contributions of this section discuss collections of parkas and costumes preserved in various museums. Ann Bahnson describes women's caribou skin coats from West Greenland dated from the early 19th century. Torunn Klokkernes and Nalini Sharma discuss a collection of about 140 Netsilik caribou skin costumes collected by Roald Amundsen during a two-year period (1903–05) when he overwintered on King William Island. Finally, Else Ostengard deals with the medieval garments of the first European inhabitants of North America, the Norse Greenlanders for example, arguing that the absence of adequate clothing might explain their disappearance from Greenland when the climate grew colder.

Part four of the book moves in another direction. The contributors of this section trace changes in dressing in Greenland and Alaska resulting from outside influences. Soren Thuesen provides a brief ethnohistorical account of the many changes in dressing that occurred in West Greenland, arguing that “the Greenlandic national costume is a recent 20th century ‘invention’,” that is now only used for special occasions. Gertrud Kleinschmidt looks at the Greenlandic national dress from another angle; she compares it to other clothes and concludes that new elements, such as beads or skin embroideries, were constantly incorporated. Cunera Buijs describes changes in dressing in East Greenland, connecting these changes to various sociohistorical changes. The use of skin clothing is not only related to local identities but also to ideas of spirituality, the hunting way of life, in both their socioeconomic as well as religious aspects. Birgit Paukszat focuses on kayak clothing in contemporary Greenlandic kayak clubs. Drawing on many interviews with members of a kayak club, she shows how culture and sport can be connected and how new materials can be adopted to preserve an old tradition. Cyd Martin explores the relationship between decorative trim designs on Inupiaq parkas and multicultural contact in northern Alaska from 1880 to 1940. Molly Lee examines the introduction of the Yup'ik kaapaaq, a bearded hairnet, in Russian orthodox communities during the 19th century. She connects this object to the tradition of weaving fishing nets from sinew.

In the last part of the book, contributors discuss the relation between clothing and art. Nelson Graburn provides an historical overview of Inuit clothing traditions by depicting many carvings from the eastern Arctic. James Houston briefly describes the introduction of printmaking in Cape Dorset. Jonathan King comments on the famous drawings made by the late Rose Iqallijuq who met Knud Rasmussen in the 1920s, arguing that her drawings represent specific individuals. Such a hypothesis is convincing with respect to Iqallijuq but still needs to be tested and strengthened. Finally, after describing a few parkas, Glenna Maulding posits clothing as art, a point that is obvious throughout the book just by looking at the beautiful illustrations offered to the reader. Clearly, highlighting the adaptiveness of Arctic skin clothing in a harsh environment is now insufficient to give justice to the richness, quality, and creativity of Arctic clothing traditions.

Frederic Laugrand is Professeur titulaire in the Département d'anthropologie at Canada's Université Laval and Director of the Centre Interuniversitaire d'Études et de Recherches Autochtones (CIÉRA). His research focuses on historical and symbolic anthropology and the study of religion, visual anthropology, and missionization, with an areal focus on the Canadian Arctic. He is the author (with Jarich G. Oosten) of The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2008), Mourir et Renaître: La Réception du Christianisme par les Inuit de l'Est Canadien (Québec, PUL, 2002), and a book on the transfer of knowledge, Surviving in Different Worlds: Transferring Inuit Traditions from Elders to Youth (Nunavut Arctic College, 2007).