And these are really, really old-time beads, because you see how small they are?
—Eliza Jones, 2004
This man’s tunic, made of moose hide with long fringes and colorful beadwork, is a style that Alaskan Athabascans stopped making around the end of the 19th century. Before glass beads became available from fur traders, women embroidered tunics with dyed porcupine quills.
Region: Innoko River, Alaska
Object Category: Clothing
Object Type: Tunic
Dimensions: Length 128cm
Accession Date: 1882
Source: E. W. Nelson (collector)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E064278
Eliza Jones: This is moosehide, tanned and smoked moosehide. And these are really, really old-time beads, because you see how small they are?
Judy Woods: Yes, they are.
Eliza Jones: This whole top piece is one piece.
Kate Duncan: This is one piece wrapped around.
Judy Woods: Yes, wrapped around.
Kate Duncan: And how is it across the back?
Eliza Jones: It’s all one piece, all the way over. Again, the beads are very old-time beads. They look like size fourteen. This one might be sixteen. Some of these are little bigger. Wow.
Aron Crowell: And how would they have tanned this skin to get it so soft?
Eliza Jones: It’s a long process. If they got this moose in the winter or even in the fall, the first thing you do is you drape it over a pole with the fur turned in. There’s different methods, but one way is to hayłgaa [scrape it].
Trimble Gilbert: Nehtthah reh [bone skin scraper].
Eliza Jones: Yes, with the scraper and the heavy weight on top. You just scrape away all the inside tissue from the meat side. When you get that done, then you turn it with the fur side out—still draped over a log—and then you get a knife. You hold the hide and cut the hair off. You cut the hair off the whole hide. And then when you get all that done, you put the hide in water and clean it off. If it’s in winter, you take it outside and you make little peg holes around the edge of the hide.
And you get little sticks to stake it down with and make flat place to stake it down. You do it on one side, and then when you get to the other side, you pull on the hide. You pull on the hide so that it’s really taut, tight all around, so that it freezes smooth. And then after it freezes, like the next day, you drape it over maybe a sleigh or something. And you get a maahaa k’edelaaghe [scraper used in tanning moose hides], and you scrape this frozen hide, on the inside first. You finish taking all the tissue off the inside skin, and then you turn the hide over and do the same thing. The epidermis—that’s what that the hair grows on—you have to scrape all that off. Then you wind dry it, and after that it can be tanned. They usually wait until the fall, until it’s the right time. In the meantime, you save the brains from the moose and put it in a container and let it ferment, and you use that to tan it. It’s a long process. There are books on how to tan, because it’s a long process. You have to read about it, I can’t tell you all about it.
Aron Crowell: You end up with a really soft hide.
Eliza Jones: Yes. And you take rotten spruce—button spruce—it’s a reddish-brown color, and you make smudge [smoke] in a container, like in a tub. It takes about four hours to color it.
[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.
This tunic for a man is made of tanned moose hide, richly ornamented with small “seed” beads that were imported into the Yukon River region by the Hudson’s Bay Company during the mid to late 19th century.(1) Bands of color and a wave-like design extend across the chest, shoulders, and back, and beads were also used to decorate the bottom fringes and front of the garment. The neck and the cuffs are bordered with red trade cloth, and red ocher (a mineral pigment) is painted around the bottom inside edge.
Collector Edward W. Nelson photographed the original owner, a Gwich’in man from Fort Yukon, as he stood with a musket in his hand and wearing the tunic, matching moccasin trousers (see Related Objects), and a bag with beaded floral designs. The glass plate image was probably taken at the fur trade settlement of St. Michael near the mouth of the Yukon River, where Nelson was stationed between 1877-1881.(2) However, museum records list “Innoko River” (in Deg Hit’an country) as the location where the tunic was collected, and Nelson did visit that region by dogsled in the winter of 1880.
1. Duncan 1989:64-66
2. Duncan 1989:64-65; 1997:23; Simeone and Vanstone 1986:7
3. VanStone 1978