tthaa dhah ik
“ground-squirrel skin parka”
My mom had a woman’s parka like this, really nice.
—Eliza Jones, 2004
This hoodless parka from the Yukon River is made of tanned ground squirrel backs with decorative trim pieces of white caribou fur, river otter, and wolverine. Squirrel skin tassels hang from the front and back. The parka’s design is distinctly Yup’ik, including decorative tabs with caribou hair stitching that are attached in back. Such parkas, however, were well known to Athabascan peoples along the Yukon River, who acquired them by trading with Yup’ik residents of the Bering Sea coast.
Region: Yukon Territory, Canada
Object Category: Clothing
Dimensions: Length 119cm
Accession Date: 1917
Source: Fred Harvey Company (seller)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 063309.000
Judy Woods: Ground squirrel? They have a name for it.
Eliza Jones: Yes, hundeggezee [ground squirrel]. Let’s see, hundegge leł de’aak [squirrel-skin parka].(2)
Aron Crowell: . . . The museum has it recorded as “Gwich’in man’s coat.”
Trimble Gilbert: . . . Tthaa is a ground squirrel. Tthaa dhah [ground squirrel skin] mean it’s a skin. That coat, tthaa dhah ik [ground-squirrel skin parka].
Eliza Jones: And what about if it’s trimmed – these [fringe]?
Judy Woods: These are squirrel tails.
Eliza Jones: How would you say it’s trimmed like this? Nedenaadletlekk [it is fringed]?
Judy Woods: Yes, Nedenaadletlekk [it is fringed].
Trimble Gilbert: Tthak [trimmed squirrel tail]. And they dye it too, see.
Eliza Jones: Oh, how pretty. It looks like they dyed them, maybe with kk’es [alder].
Judy Woods: Yes.
Eliza Jones: This [collar] must be caribou at the top.
Trimble Gilbert: Mm-hmm. And I don’t know about this [strip on sleeve] one here. Different.
Eliza Jones: That’s otter, otter skin. So maybe they use this caribou at the top because it’s sturdy.
Trimble Gilbert: Stronger.
Eliza Jones Stronger. . . . And it’s caribou around the neck?
Judy Woods: Around the collar.
Eliza Jones: And decorated [upper tassels] with that old-time cloth?
Trimble Gilbert: Mm-hmm.
Eliza Jones: . . . Red cloth. That’s really neat the way they put yarn on this fringe.
Judy Woods: They always use red yarn or red felt something on it.
Eliza Jones: Yes, on parkas they always added something red.
Kate Duncan: Why was that?
Eliza Jones: Because the red stands out, makes it pretty. . . . And the trimming across here [shoulders and below collar] looks like maybe—
Trimble Gilbert: This look like wolverine, eh?
Eliza Jones: Yes, this is probably wolverine right here. . . . Right across here [strip across chest] there’s a different fur. You think it was wolverine? It’s kind of worn out.
Judy Woods: Look like it.
Eliza Jones: So this parkee would probably be worn when they’re traveling?
Trimble Gilbert: I think so.
Judy Woods: Probably, because you can see it has been worn. It was a dress-up thing.
Trimble Gilbert: Yes, maybe it’s for dress-up thing.
Eliza Jones: Oh, dress-up! Because it’s too fragile for everyday use.
Trimble Gilbert: Mm-hmm. Even now I always see the girls wear it for—along the coast where the Eskimo and Indian all live. Seen a lot of fancy ones.
Eliza Jones: This got lot of fringes in it.
Kate Duncan: . . . Is that for a woman or a man?
Judy Woods: It’s a men’s parkee (variation of parka), this one.
Eliza Jones: This one (Museum information) says man’s parka.
Trimble Gilbert: Nowadays it’s women, and they wear that. I seen it in like Eskimo Olympics or on a special occasion.
Kate Duncan: That’s why I wondered.
Trimble Gilbert: Yes, a lot of young girls wear it. Old women wear it. Beautiful. They use that wolverine trim.
Judy Woods: And a lot of calfskin work.
Aron Crowell: Does this style look right?
Eliza Jones: For a man’s it would be, mm-hmm.
Judy Woods: Because it’s plain.
Aron Crowell: How about for the area, for the Yukon River area?
Eliza Jones: It looks right. According to the old pictures.
Trimble Gilbert: Mm-hmm. Men don’t usually have really fancy like this, but the women’s style is really fancy one.
Phillip Arrow: . . . My mom had a same kind, squirrel. But this one is different. She had red cloth and wolverine skin on the end, really fancy. She got flowers down the end, beaded flowers—
Eliza Jones: Oh, all around the border.
Phillip Arrow: Right. All the way down the bottom. And this collar beaded right here. Really pretty. She put it on only when she go out of town. Must be for dress (up). . . .
Eliza Jones: My mom had a woman’s parka like this, really nice. . . .
Judy Woods: I always think of my parkee too, my mom made caribou-skin parkee too.
Aron Crowell: . . . Would this have been a winter garment? Or for summer?
Eliza Jones: Oh, I think it would have been a winter garment.
Judy Woods: Winter.
Trimble Gilbert: Just for dress-up.
Eliza Jones: Yes, just for dress-up I think, because if you try to work in it, it would rip up pretty fast.
Judy Woods: Mm-hmm.
[From discussion with Phillip Arrow, Trimble Gilbert, Eliza Jones and Judy Woods at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 5/17/2004-5/21/2004. Also participating: Aron Crowell (NMNH), Kate Duncan (Arizona State University) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
1. In this entry, the Elders speak in different Athabascan dialects: Phillip Arrow, Deg Xinag; Trimble Gilbert, Gwich’in; Eliza Jones, Central Koyukon; and Judy Woods, Upper Koyukon.
2. According to the Koyukon Athabascan Dictionary, a de’aak can refer to a “parka, dress, coat, shirt, pullover garment, tunic, jacket.”
Traditional Athabascan clothing included long tunics of scraped caribou skin as well as pull-over parkas made from many different types of furs. Some parkas had hoods; others did not.(1) This hoodless example from the lower Yukon River is made of tanned ground squirrel backs with decorative trim pieces of white caribou fur, river otter, and wolverine. Squirrel skin tassels hang from the front and back.
This piece appears to be an example of the lower Yukon Deg Hit’an “blanket parka.”(2) These ankle-length ground squirrel garments were designed for winter travel, being long enough to serve as parkas during the day and sleeping blankets at night. When traveling, the lower part of the parka was pulled up around the waist and held in place with a belt. Women’s blanket parkas had hoods, but men’s (like this one) did not. All were decorated with tassels made of various furs, and stitched together with sinew thread.
Trimble Gilbert, Eliza Jones, Judy Woods, and Phillip Arrow recalled that parkas from the general Yukon-Tanana-Koyukuk region could be made from many different types of furs, confirmed by historical descriptions that mention caribou, moose, mountain sheep, wolf, wolverine, squirrel, muskrat, hare (rabbit), marten, beaver, black duck, tree squirrel, and ground squirrel.
(3) Caribou with the hair left was perhaps most common for winter use because of its exceptional warmth, but muskrats were also valued because the furs are lightweight and water-repellent.(4) In areas where Athabascan people lived in close contact with coastal Yup’ik populations, such as the lower Yukon River and around Cook Inlet, they adopted Eskimo-style waterproof parkas made from fish skins, bear intestines, or sea mammal membranes.(5) Eskimo seal skin parkas from the coast were also historically traded up the Yukon River.(6) By the mid-20th century, most Athabascan makers had stopped making full-length parkas and adopted a new style, the short, zippered fur jacket.(7)
Parkas and jackets are traditionally sewn in late fall or early winter to get ready for Christmas celebrations or as gifts for memorial potlatches.(8)
1. McKennan 1959:78; Osgood 1936:38-40, 1940:253-56
2. Osgood 1970:256-247
3. Carlo 1978:48-49; Clark 1974:46; deLaguna and McClellan 1981:649; Duncan and Carney 1997:78-79; McKennan 1965:44-45; Michael 1967:143; Mischler 1995:543: Osgood 1970:253-256, 259, 1959:82-83; Steinbright 1984:80
4. Clark 1974:46
5. Osgood 1937; 1940:258
6. Schmitter 1985:4
7. Madison and Yarber 1981a:58-60
8. Carlo 1978:59; Clark 1974:41; Madison and Yarber 1981a:58-60; Steinbright 1984:101; VanStone 1978:21