In the past, Unangan men wore waterproof hunting boots made from seal throats. The ridged skin from sea lion flippers made ideal soles because the animals use their flippers to climb slippery rocks.
Region: Unalaska Island, Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Clothing
Object Type: Boots, waterproof
Accession Date: 1881
Source: E. W. Nelson (collector)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E048102
Aron Crowell: How long did people wear boots like this? Up into the twentieth-century at all?
Maria Turnpaugh: Probably.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Looks like it goes up to their knee.
Aron Crowell: Would these be men’s or women’s boots?
Maria Turnpaugh: Most likely men’s.
Daria Dirks: Men’s because they’re out all the time.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Could be a woman’s too.
Mary Bourdukofsky: I think this is what they used to call a sapuugax^ [men’s knee-high boot] in Russian.(1) My dad always used to call his boots sapuugax^.
Aron Crowell: Were his boots anything like this?
Mary Bourdukofsky: No. As I was growing up, I didn’t see homemade ones, but he told a story about it.
Aron Crowell: Do you think those are oiled or waterproof?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, it looks like they are.
Daria Dirks: Yes, because they’re still going out in the baidarkas [kayaks] then.(2) I wonder if it was for a younger man, because look how small the foot is. It’s about the same size as me.
Maria Turnpaugh: The Aleuts weren’t very big.
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, the Aleut men had small feet.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Maybe they make it like this [tall uppers] because of drifts, as we used to have lots of lots of snow.
Daria Dirks: Is that fur seal skin on top [of upper]? Looks like it.
Maria Turnpaugh: It’s soft.
Mary Bourdukofsky: It’s got guard hairs, so it’s seal hair trim. It looks like fur seal.
Daria Dirks: What about the sides [uppers]?
Mary Bourdukofsky: This could be caribou, reindeer or moose leather.
Maria Turnpaugh: Usually moose is softer, isn’t it? And it’s moose we don’t have.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Reindeer gets soft too, when they tan it.
Daria Dirks: So it’s either reindeer or caribou skin?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Mm-hmm.
Daria Dirks: What about the fur on there [along vertical seams of upper]?
Maria Turnpaugh: Some kind of hair.
Mary Bourdukofsky: It’s—the reindeer hair is coarse, really, really coarse.
Maria Turnpaugh: I don’t know. I wonder what this could be. It’s not stiff and not really soft either. Now this [sole] is a flipper of some seal?
Vlass Shabolin: Sea lion, yes.
Mary Bourdukofsky: The sole looks like sea lion sea lion flipper.
Vlass Shabolin: It’s a big sea lion flipper, one whole piece.
Daria Dirks: This would last years.
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, the sea lion flipper is thick.
Mary Bourdukofsky: And the sole looks like Upper Kuskokwim people [Yup’ik] who make their soles like this from ugruk [bearded seal (in Iñupiaq)] skin.
And they say they chew on it to soften it up and then shape it.
Maria Turnpaugh: Now what kind of leather is that [boot vamp]? I don’t know what kind it is.
Daria Dirks: Maybe they got it from the Russians.
Maria Turnpaugh: Mm-hmm, that’s what I think.
Vlass Shabolin: It’s a factory-made leather it looks like.
Mary Bourdukofsky: You know when they do the sewing, they used to stitch like that, like a sewing machine. I remember my dad made a packsack, his sewing was like that.
[From discussion with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
1. Sapuugax^ [men’s knee-high boot] comes from the Russian word sapóg “boot.”
2. Baidarka [kayak] comes from the Russian word bajdarka “kayak.”
George Heinrich von Langsdorff, who visited Unalaska in 1805, reported that Unangan men wore boots that had soles made of sealskin and uppers that were sewn from seal esophagus (the throat or gullet). The boots were stitched with whale or caribou sinew, which swelled when wet to make the seams completely waterproof. These boots were so well constructed, he wrote, that the men could “wade in swamps and creeks for days on end without getting their feet wet.”(1) Men always took off their boots before stepping into a kayak.
Such boots are described in many other historical reports and were commonly made with throats and skins from either harbor seals or sea lions.(2) Women also wore boots, at least occasionally, but they often went barefoot.(3) Boots are seldom mentioned in the earliest Russian reports, suggesting that they may have become more popular under Russian influence.(4)
Elders in 2003 tentatively identified the materials used for this late 19th century pair from Unalaska as caribou skin for the legs, seal fur for the upper trim, and sea lion flipper for the soles.
According to Elder John Gordieff (Unalaska, recorded in 1954), the thick skin from around a sea lion’s head and shoulders can be used for boot soles, but its flippers are especially good because the rubbery gripping surface (used by the animal to climb slippery rocks) lends traction.(5) Veniaminov noted that sea lion flipper soles, because of their natural wrinkles, were “most suitable for walking over pebbles and slippery places.”(6) At Unangan villages on the Alaska Peninsula, locally-available caribou skins were often used for boot uppers, and these skins were traded to the eastern islands.(7)
1. Langsdorff 1993:II16
2. Merck 1980:77; Sarychev 1969:8; Sauer 1802:156; Veniaminov 1984:267
3. Beaglehole 1967:1143; Sauer 1802:155
4. Liapunova 1996:212
5. Hudson 1992:199-00
6. Veniaminov 1984:267
7. Veniaminov 1984:287; Zaikov 1988:265