Region: Yukon River (upper), Alaska
Object Category: Clothing
Object Type: Tunic
Accession Date: 1866
Source: Bernard R. Ross (donor)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: ET001857A
Examining & identifying(2)
Kate Duncan: So this goes over the leggings [ET001857B].
Eliza Jones: It goes with the other pants. See that beadwork is the same. It’s beaded around the sleeve, the same as the pants, the same method it looks like.
Kate Duncan: And we have the gloves that go with it too [ET001857C].
Trimble Gilbert: Dinjik dhah ik.
Eliza Jones: The only word I know for it is de’aak [parka, tunic].(3)
Trimble Gilbert: Dinjik dhah ik naagąįį hàa ìltsaii. Vitł‘èets’al gwànlįį.
(Mooseskin dress made with beads. It is pointed.(4))
Eliza Jones: This one was worn, because see how it ripped out, the stitching ripped out. It must have gotten too narrow [for wearer].
Trimble Gilbert: Looks like [it’s made with] moose skin.
Judy Woods: Yes, deyozee [cow moose].
Eliza Jones: Detseege [calf moose]. This is moose hide, but it’s got about a three-quarter-inch wide strip of caribou hide around the bottom, and the beads are attached to that, smaller beads.
Judy Woods: They made fringes.
Eliza Jones: They sewed the caribou around the bottom, they fringed it, and then they put beads on the fringe—two, four, six, seven beads. It’s sewed with sinew. And it’s colored with tseeyh, “ocher,” all around the edge.
Trimble Gilbert: We call that nèetthak [fringe].
Judy Woods: More hanging down this way too, in the back. Up around here [below neck] is different.
Eliza Jones: Up here is dentalia, k’etl’ene’. Beads and k’etl’ene’.
Judy Woods: And then those ones [dentalia] are bigger too, the front ones.
Eliza Jones: Yes, the ones in the front are longer.
Kate Duncan: How would they have gotten their dentalia, the shells?
Eliza Jones: These might have been trade beads traded from the southeast. I heard that people used to go a long way to get dentalia. And there’s this one story that I heard of as a child about this. You know we have stories about animals and that they were people one time. Well this k’etl’en ts’ehut’aane, that’s white-crowned sparrow?
Judy Woods: Mm-hmm.
Eliza Jones: He was a man, and he went on a long trip. And he was coming home, and he had this k’etl’ene’ [dentalia]. Before he got home, he ran out of food and was starving. He knew he was going to die. So he put this dentalia on his head, rows of it, and then he turned in to a bird and flew home. He flew to where his home was, and so he sang this song: “Dzo [too late]! Do’o sek’e ts’eeteetl’ot [there is my home over there].” So he’d sit over there. And if you hear the bird, it sounds just like that.
Judy Woods: That bird sings that song.
Eliza Jones: Yes, and that’s the white-crowned sparrow, k’etl’en ts’ehut’aane. That’s what it means [literal meaning of words], “bird that has a dentalia hat.” These are called k’etl’ene’ [dentalia] in our language, and that one popular song from around Kaltag has k’etl’ene’ in there. Because dentalia were really valued in our home, it’s associated to our clan.
So this person—they made [the song] in his memory—and they mention k’etl’ene’ was the clan he was from.
Trimble Gilbert: One old lady, before she died, she made a bead strap. And she handed it to me, “I want to give you this and beads for your grandpa.” So I still have it and keep it in my house.
Judy Woods: It’s a special gift.
Eliza Jones: When they make straps for someone, that’s a real special gift they give to someone.
Judy Woods: They’re special because you don’t see them, and you have to buy them now.
Trimble Gilbert: It’s like the one I was talking about yesterday, just like cane. Before they died, when they can hardly walk anymore, sometime they hand it to a young man. And they said a lot of times, “Shik’ìt tèe shôahk’eh,“ meaning that “I want you to breathe like me.”
That cane is very important in a lot of stories. That’s a gift, just like beads, and like wisdom is given to you, so you can do something with it for the future generations. These are very special things. A lot of times a chief—Chief Andrew and Peter John I think—they handed it to another chief. That’s a special gift.
Eliza Jones: When my husband was chief of Denakkanaaaga [Athabascan youth & Elders organization], they let him have it, and he wore it to those meetings. And then when they elected another person, Donald Honea, then that same chief’s necklace was given to him to wear at the meetings.
Trimble Gilbert: Mm-hmm, this is the way that we keep our tradition alive.
Trimble Gilbert: This skin here and beads, it means a lot of things to us. When we grew up, the men wore this kind of costume, like [Chiefs] Peter John and David Salmon.
Old people used to wear this. When we played around—we grew up with a community—sometimes we were tempted to do something wrong. And as soon as they found out—it didn’t have to be just your parents, but any old people—they didn’t want to see the kids grow up that way. Then that person wore this kind [of clothing] and came to you, and they said something to you with a harsh, strong voice. “I heard you did this. And I want you to remember, don’t ever do that again.” Sometimes, we tend to talk back, because we’re getting mad. But when that voice came up from the Elder, that strong voice, [it was] just like you lost all your strength down to the ground. And you had no nerve, no guts to talk back to the old people. So you remember that. And after they talk to you, “Come here.” They hold you like that. “Grandson, we love you. Don’t ever do that again.” So everything is clear—mind and new life again—and you start all over again. So this means a lot to us, to Gwich’in people, even other tribes. And lot of young people said Peter John wore these kinds of beads and talked to young people.
And young people talk about Peter John, “This is what Peter John told me.” So that means a lot, this kind of custom.
Aron Crowell: In association with the dentalia shells, you mentioned one clan in the Koyukon area. Could you say a little about the clans, the names of them, and if there are certain objects or animals associated with the clans.
Eliza Jones: In our area, there are three clans. There’s the Bedzeyh Te Hut’aane, the Caribou clan and Noltseene [Bear clan]. They say anything that comes from within the land is Noltseene. And then Toneedze Gheltseele [Midstream People] is the third clan, that’s things associated to rivers and stream. And the Toneedze Gheltseele have something very special. There’s certain kind of weather that goes with the Toneedze Gheltseele. And then the Noltseene also, if it’s really cold in the winter and somebody who is from Noltseene goes outdoors and shakes the bear hide, it brings snowy weather, warmer weather.
They said the Toneedze Gheltseele didn’t have any special power, but they were related to the Bedzeyh Te Hut’aane and the Noltseene and things that were on the river, like the driftwood that goes down and helps people on the coast.
Trimble Gilbert: About the clans, Caribou People like my father and a few other people do really know about caribou. He always looked for caribou with a high-powered scope sitting outside, especially in July and August when the herd is coming back. We don’t know when, but they do know the weather. One day they say, “Now that’s caribou weather”—raining, fog down to the ground and in the morning usually lifting up. He said, “I know the caribou are coming. I dreamt about it.” They’re kind of connected to the animal like that. My grandma, she’s Wolf clan, so people said she had really good eyes and her daughter too, and my father and mother, my family. Binocular vision because they came from the wolf.
Eliza Jones: Keen vision.
Trimble Gilbert: When my grandma died, that night wolves hollered all around. Wolves knew that grandma died. So I know a lot about these kinds of stories, and it’s an unseen thing. But just a few people know about it today. You know, we’re losing lot of old people now.
Judy Woods: We don’t have anybody in our town.
Trimble Gilbert: So they don’t think about these kinds of things any more. When I visit David Salmon is only time I talk about this, and I learn more from him too. It’s hard to find those kinds of people any more.
[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. This garment is part of a set that includes moccasin pants ET001857B & mittens ET001857C.
3. According to the Koyukon Athabascan Dictionary, a de’aak can refer to a “parka, dress, coat, shirt, pullover garment, tunic, jacket.”
4. According to Gwich’in translator Hishinlai’ “Kathy” Sikorski, vitł‘èets’al [point, pointed] refers to the V-shaped hem of the garment.
This tunic has fringes at the hem, chest, and cuffs, and comes to a point in both front and back, which was a traditional Gwich’in man’s style.(1) Trimble Gilbert, Eliza Jones, and Judy Woods identified the main part of the tunic as skin from a moose cow (female) or calf, with a strip of caribou sewn along the bottom to make the fringes.
The garment is expensively ornamented with glass beads acquired from Russian traders or the Hudson’s Bay Company and with tusk-shaped “dentalium” shells which come from a marine mollusk (genus Dentalium) that inhabits the coastal waters of southeast Alaska. Dentalium shells were highly valued for jewelry and for decorating clothing, and were traded from the southern coast into interior Alaska before European contact. Later, they were imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company.(2) There are many stories in Athabascan oral tradition about ways that these shells were obtained, such as by lowering a human body, dog, or meat into a mythical well or pond.(3)
Red lines seen along the hem, seams, and beaded areas of the tunic were painted with red ocher, a mineral pigment that was also highly valued as an indigenous trade item.(4) Tsaih [red ocher] was said to have supernatural power, and locations where it was found were regarded as sacred.(5) This pigment was traditionally used by the Gwich’in for face painting and to decorate clothing, snowshoes, toboggans, and bows.(6)
The tunic was part of a set acquired by Hudson’s Bay Company trader Bernard Ross in the 1850s or 1860s (see moccasin trousers and mittens in Related Items).
Tunics without hoods and decorated with long fringes and colorful chest bands made of beads or quills were once standard clothing for many Athabascan peoples, including the Deg Hit’an, Koyukon, Gwich’in, Upper Tanana, Dena’ina, and Ahtna.(7) In general, the bottoms of men’s tunics were pointed in both front and back and came down to about the knee; women’s tunics were usually straight in front and pointed in back, and extended to the ankles.
(8) They were worn in combination with moccasin trousers (pants with built-in feet), a belt, cap, and mittens.(9) Men and women carried essentials such as face paints, fire-making equipment, charms, and small personal belongings in pouches that they hung around their necks or tucked into their belts. Knives were worn in the belt or in a hanging sheath.(10)
1. Osgood 1936:42-43
2. McKennan 1959:129, 1965:25; Osgood 1936:47-48; Simeone and VanStone 1986:5-6
3. Osgood 1970:189-90
4. Osgood 1936:93
5. Slobodin 1981:517
6. Hadleigh West 1963:230; Osgood 1936:93
7. Dall 1870:82-83; Duncan 1989; Jones 1872:320; McKennan 1959:78-80; Michael 1967:244-246; Murray 1910:84-94; Osgood 1936:44-45; Richardson 1851[Vol. 1]:377, 380; Simeone and VanStone 1986:4-5; Whymper 1868:203
8. Vanstone 1981:8-10
9. McKennan 1959:78
10. Thompson 1994:25