It’s not easy to catch a rabbit for the pants…They used sinew and they snared them.
—Trimble Gilbert, 2004
This child’s pair of rabbit fur pants was part of a Gwich’in suit that included a matching parka. Both were sewn from whole skins of the Arctic hare. Hare skins can also be spiral-cut into long strips (“rabbit yarn”) and crocheted together to make warm clothing and sleeping bags.
Region: Porcupine & Peel Rivers, Alaska/Canada
Object Category: Clothing
Dimensions: Length 67cm
Accession Date: 1917
Source: Donald A. Cadzow (collected)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 071054.000
Examining & explaining
Eliza Jones: I was looking at this earlier and it’s got some kind of caribou-skin sole or something. It’s lined with fur is inside too?
Trimble Gilbert: Mm-hmm.
Eliza Jones: That’s very, very warm. Up in Allakaket area, it gets really, really cold, especially long time ago. And these women who were older than me, they said they remember 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.
Trimble Gilbert: Yes, you could hear it.
Eliza Jones: And she said they had rabbit skin clothes like this. So, she said they’d play outside, and the cold didn’t really bother them.
Trimble Gilbert: Yes.
Eliza Jones: So, in my language this would be ggoł kkaatseeyh [rabbit skin pants].
Judy Woods: Yes, ggoł is rabbit [skin]. Ggoł tlaakk [rabbit skin parka], rabbit skin jacket.
Kate Duncan: When they came in, they would have to take it off right away so they wouldn’t get all perspired?
Eliza Jones: Oh, yes.
Trimble Gilbert: Mm-hmm, they got some kind of rules.
Eliza Jones: . . . I didn’t see a rabbit skin pants like that.
Judy Woods: I never see rabbit skin pants.
Trimble Gilbert: It was called geh thał [rabbit pants]. . . . And main thing is caribou skin, it’s not easy to tear, but then kids can slide down with it. Well, you know that we always slide down when we were kids, but this kind of fur is—the kids not allowed to slide down with it, it’s easy to tear.
And also water, so they keep it away from the water.
Trimble Gilbert: Well, we talk about long time ago, it’s not easy to catch a rabbit for the pants. Not to go out and just get it. A lot of time they use the sinew, and they snare them. And sometimes they use a stick. And because the other predators always come around nighttime, check your snare. So they put the stick. and they put snare there. Anyway, they use a pin, so when they caught a rabbit, that pin come off and so that rabbit is hanging way up there.
Eliza Jones: Oh, yes, kind of like a key.
Trimble Gilbert: So that wolverine or fox won’t get him. Tthak [rabbit snare release].
Eliza Jones: K’endoyełtl [pin or key on the spring-pole snare].
Judy Woods: Oh yes, ch’endoyełtl [pin or key on the spring-pole snare], that springing snare.
Eliza Jones: . . . And [you] very carefully set the snares and put sticks around it. And when the rabbit comes along and gets caught and jerks on it, then it would release this thing [pin] and spring forward with spring and the rabbits would hang down. . . . The other thing they said, that was a good way to catch the rabbits because then the rabbits die right away and the meat is healthier.
Trimble Gilbert: Yes, more flavor that way, for it not suffer. So when that pin come out, that stick goes like this [end springs up] and way up on there like that, so that rabbit is hanging. I remember they catch lots that way.
[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 pair of child’s trousers is made of Arctic hare (rabbit) skins. The built-in feet are soled with tougher skin, probably caribou. The trousers go with a matching parka (NMAI 071503.000).
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.(3)
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