Up in the Allakaket area it gets really, really cold, especially a long time ago. These women who were older than me said they remembered playing outdoors in really cold weather, and you know it was cold because they used to go like this [exhales] and their breath just sizzled. They had rabbit-skin clothes like this, and the cold didn’t bother them.
—Eliza Jones, 2004
This Gwich’in parka for a child is made from a double layer of Arctic hare skins sewn back to back. Rabbit skins are light and extremely warm, although not very durable, and were used for blankets and all kinds of clothing. Because the animals are common and easily captured, parkas made from their skins were considered to be undistinguished; the well-off preferred marten, wolf, wolverine, and caribou garments. Nonetheless, hare parkas and pants were so useful that people wore them long after giving up other types of traditional clothing.
Region: Porcupine & Peel Rivers, Alaska/Canada
Object Category: Clothing
Dimensions: Length 82cm
Accession Date: 1917
Source: Donald A. Cadzow (collected)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 071053.000
Making rabbit-skin parkas
Eliza Jones: When we made parkas for our children like this, we usually put cloth parka over it so that make it last longer. And then sometimes we wore it with the fur turned to our body or most of the time, I think that’s how we wore it. And then the rabbit skin, after you sewed all the rabbit skin together, you sew a cloth to the back of it. That makes it sturdier. First you quilt it down, and then you quilt it across.
In the summertime, we stayed in camp with my grandma, Cecelia Happy. And in August on the Koyukuk River, there’s not much fish and the men would go out hunting. And then grandma would take her sewing project out. She had all these tanned rabbits hides, and she sewed them together. And then she draped them over something, and then took the flannel. She was telling me that she was going to teach me how to sew, so I sat next to her. And we’re sewing this flannel to the rabbit skin.
And the way she sewed, her needle go click, click, click – just real regular, uniform. And I would be sitting there, by her, trying to make that noise, but my hand was little bit clumsy I guess [laughter]. But we wore this, some of my children wore this, and then later there was other kind of material that came along and we used that. But we sure wore that as children.
And the other thing – I heard this one from Sally [Hudson] – was that they took rabbit’s hide, after they tanned the hide . . . you drape it over a pole, and then you cut a strip into it. And you pull on it . . . and as you’re cutting it up, you’re rolling up this thing and you make ball of string, with this rabbit’s hide. And then she said . . . they like crocheted it with their finger, and then they make it into a parka. And she said, as a child, she had a whole suit that had the pants attached to it too. Then the rabbit skin, after it get older, the fur gets all matted, and that makes it even more warmer. . . .
Does that have a backing? Oh no, you said it’s lined with rabbit fur?
Aron Crowell: Seems to be fur. Why don’t you look?
Eliza Jones: I don’t really want to touch it because the fur really flies. Oh my, lined with rabbit fur. I’ve never seen one like that, because as I said, we sewed cloth to the back of it and then make a cloth parka over it. . . . And I call this ggoł tlaakk [rabbit-skin parka].
Judy Woods: I call it ggoł tlaakk [rabbit-skin parka] too.
Phillip Arrow: Ggux da’ [rabbit (skin) parka]. . . .
Trimble Gilbert: It’s easy word for our language, geh [rabbit]. . . . Geh dhah [rabbit skin], geh dhah ik [rabbit-skin parka].
Using rabbit skin
Judy Woods: I seen my mom make like she said. They stripped them and then that skin would just roll just like yarn.
And she made a blanket for my brother out of it, out of that rabbit skin. . . . And that was for inside mittens and for your socks, for inside your boots. They even used to have bag of cut-up rabbit skin in a bag for people to put in their mitts [when] their lining get old. I made a sleeping bag with hood on it for my son when he was baby, because we stayed in tent.
Phillip Arrow: I seen they make blanket, but I never seen something like this. . . . And long ago, ahead of my time, they always carry stuff out their trap line on their back. And they try to make things light as they can. So they use [rabbit skin] blanket. I never did try it, but they say it’s sure warm. . . . They make lots of use for that rabbit skin.
Eliza Jones: Oh yes, never throw rabbit skin away.
Phillip Arrow: But you gotta have the right cover on both sides, so it’ll last longer. . . .
Trimble Gilbert: So they use blanket too, and they said it’s both side, big blanket.
And they use it long time in winter, cold weather. And when they said cold weather, mean it’s seventy-below that time when we grow up.
Judy Woods: That’s true.
Trimble Gilbert: Now the climate has changed, so it’s warmer and warmer up there. I think some people still using it for right here [neck]. When you travel long ways, cold weather get into your parka right here [neck]. So they’re still using it. And some people use some in their pocket too for that cold weather. . . . They use it inside the boots too, I remember that, inside the gloves and even scarf too I remember. You know the wind is always get in to here (indicates throat) so they put it right here. I never seen one, but then I heard the story about it, and my mom tell me. Ft. Yukon is about hundred and fifty miles by trail, dog team they used to travel all the way down. . . . And there’s the old man came in from Ft. Yukon with dog team and . . . my mom said that old man wear that old outfit like this. People said this is hundred-percent warm.
. . . It’s light too, they said. . . . And they’re good eating too, that rabbit, good eating.
Judy Woods: Oh, yes.
Judy Woods: In the winter is when we save lot of this rabbit skin, they’re tougher. Tan them—they were easy to tan. . . .
Trimble Gilbert: Well, I remember that it’s easy to skin it too. Sometime we don’t even use knife, just by hand.
Eliza Jones: Very easy, mm-hmm.
Trimble Gilbert: And we skin it, and a lot of time I see people hang it outside and dry in the wind, and then the way they tan it, I remember, is when they just hold it and like that [circular scrubbing motion]. And it’s easy to [tan], it’s soft.
Judy Woods: It’s soap [used to tan it]?
Eliza Jones: Yes, just wet it with a little soap and work it, and it tans.
[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 Gwich’in child’s parka is made from a double layer of Arctic hare (rabbit) skins, sewn back to back so that fur faces both to the inside and outside of the garment. It comes from the general region of the Peel and Porcupine rivers along the Alaska-Canada border. There is a matching set of trousers with built-in feet (NMAI 071504.000).
Arctic hare pelts are very warm and light, although not durable. Alaskan Athabascans used them to make many kinds of clothing for both children and adults, including blankets, parkas, caps, shirts, trousers, vests, socks, underwear, and duffel for insulating boots.(1) Because hares are a common and easily captured animal, parkas made from their skins were considered to be undistinguished; the well-off wore more luxurious garments of marten, wolf, wolverine, or caribou.(2) Nonetheless, hare fur clothing was so useful that people wore it well into the 20th century in some places, long after most other types of traditional skin garments had been discontinued.
There are two ways of making hare pelts into clothing. The first is to stitch together whole skins, as on this coat and trousers.(4) The second is to cut the skins into long strips, making a kind of fur yarn that can be “crocheted” into parkas, blankets, and other items.(5)
Arctic hares were, and still are, quite important as food animals, although they go through cycles of increasing and declining population. Koyukon author Sydney Huntington wrote that, “When hares suddenly erupted in great numbers, Koyukon elders explained that the winter-white animals had ‘fallen from the sky with the snow.‘“(6) Traditionally they were taken singly using snares or arrows and in large numbers by communal drives.(7)
1. Carlo 1978:47-48; Hadleigh West 1963:288; Madison and Yarber 1981a:65; McKennan 1959:78, 1965:44; Nelson 1973:141-142; Osgood 1936:40, 44; Osgood 1970:253-256, 270; Schmitter 1985:5; Steinbright 1984:78
2. Carlo 1978:48; Osgood 1970:253-254
3. Thompson 1994:55
4. Carlo 1978:47
5. Huntington 1993:139; McKennan 1959:84, 1965:39,44; Osgood 1936:71; Steinbright 1984:78
6. Huntington 1993:140
7. Hadleigh West 1963:159-160; McKennan 1965:32; Mischler 1995:617; Nelson 1973:130-143; Schmitter 1985:9; Simeone 1995:10; VanStone 1978:34