Region: Yukon River (upper), Alaska
Object Category: Clothing
Object Type: Tunic
Dimensions: Length: 114cm
Accession Date: 1866
Source: Bernard R. Ross (donor)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E002030
Examining & explaining
Eliza Jones: In my language we call this k’edaat’on de’aak [thin-tanned caribou-skin garment].(2)
Trimble Gilbert: We call it ch’adhah ik [skin dress], vitł‘èets’al ch’ok [sharply pointed].(3)
Eliza Jones: And it’s tanned hide, looks like caribou.
Trimble Gilbert: Yes, caribou skin.
Eliza Jones: Looks like it’s smoked.
Judy Woods: A little smoked.
Trimble Gilbert: Jìi aii chan tthak oozhi’, tthak.
(This one is called fringe, fringe.)
Eliza Jones: The fringe, nodetleggee.
Judy Woods: This looks like porcupine quills wrapped around that [fringe]. Baayooghenaalkkon’ [it is wrapped and sewed].
Eliza Jones: These [fringe] were probably a whole piece of caribou hide, and then they cut them really thin like that. They so expertly wrapped the porcupine quills around it. The porcupine quills are called k’uh. That is so artistic. Boy they must have had a lot of quills to do this.
Judy Woods: Gosh, yeah. And these [reddish quills] are all with . . .
Eliza Jones: All with tseeyh [ocher].
Trimble Gilbert: This [coloring along seams and edges] is tsaih [ocher]?
Eliza Jones: Yes, this red is tseeyh [ocher]. That was the decorative style, with pants too.
Trimble Gilbert: Tsaih, there’s a lot of it above Chalkyitsik.
And people used this on their face too, like make-up.
Eliza Jones: Mm-hmm. There’s a place below Nulato, a little island, Ts’endetseeyh Daaze’ [place name], “the island on which we paint our faces.” That’s probably when people traveled and were coming into a community, they decorated themselves before they got there.
Trimble Gilbert: The reason people found out [about ocher] in Arctic Village is that upriver, about fifty miles north up East Fork River, there’s a flat, but there’s a lot of mountains surrounded with a big mountain. An old man, the first ordained minister, was getting logs for church in summertime. Quite a few people helped him. While they were there getting logs, they saw three sheep down on the flat. So they got them all, and then they found a lot of the hair was colored like this [ocher]. So they found out that it came from Red Sheep Creek way up there, fifty miles up north. So they knew that tsaih is from way up there.
Eliza Jones: It looks like this part right here [chest] is one piece, and then there’s a gusset here [side under arm] that’s actually part of the sleeve. So this right here [side under arm] and this [underside of sleeve]—all of this is one piece except there’s an added piece there [top of sleeve], maybe a gusset.
Judy Woods: Where they’ve sewed it [seams], they put paint [ocher] over it.
Eliza Jones: Yes. And around home when we sew this kind of material together, we carry piping in between, kkon’ kk’e ghelkełdlee [piping, welt, literally “that which is carried between hide seams when sewing”]. But on this one, they didn’t do that, and maybe that’s one of the reasons they used the ocher.
Judy Woods: Ocher to cover it.
Eliza Jones: To cover up the thread. And then it looks like this [yoke] is one whole piece. It has long fringing, and it’s all caribou.
And then these [yoke fringe] are really interesting, because they are wrapped up so tightly with dyed porcupine quills and trade beads. And then up here [band across yolk] again are quills.
Judy Woods: These quills were flattened out, after they dyed them. And this is the way they sewed them, sewed each one, that’s why they’re over.
Eliza Jones: You tack it down and then fold it over. That’s all [sewn] with sinew.
Judy Woods: That’s all they had a long time ago. That [back of yoke, line just above fringe at center] looks like it’s blue quill.
Eliza Jones: Yes. Then notice the part that was eaten by the bugs [back of yoke], they put it back here right at the neck out of the way.
Aron Crowell: How about the designs on the band?
Eliza Jones: These are traditional, old-time designs.
I remember my aunties, in calfskin they designed some of the work for that, probably not quite the same way because this is from a different area. Did you ever see a thing like this when you were a child?
Judy Woods: I’ve seen parkas and stuff made like that.
Eliza Jones: The clothing that I saw long time ago had fringe attached.
Seasonal use of skin
Trimble Gilbert: The best time to get it [caribou skin] for this kind of clothing is I think October, November—before Christmas is good. November and December is for the really good kind of white [skin]. That’s the time they time they cut the hair off and scrape it on both sides.
Judy Woods: That’s when they tan it.
Aron Crowell: Did winter ones have the fur on the inside?
Eliza Jones: Usually in the winter I think they wore it with the fur side out.
There’s a certain time of the year that they hunt the caribou for it.
Judy Woods: Summer, yes. They have short fur. A lot of the fur parkas are made from summer caribou.
Trimble Gilbert: Mm-hmm, August.
Eliza Jones: And for the caribou to be used for mattress and blankets—they used to make a kind of like a sleeping bag—they would get those in the winter. Because in the winter, the fur is really thick and has a lot of air pockets that allows it to be really warm. There’s a word for it, saanh dee’, “summer hide.” They always have to get the game a certain time of the year to be used for clothing.
Judy Woods: You see those fancy parkas with all the fancy calfskin work, that’s summer caribou.
Trimble Gilbert: I remember that during the first week of August, people usually hunt for calf. Calf hide is really good. It’s short haired.
It’ll last a long time too. Then in September, they tan it with brain, rotten brain. And they do it a certain way when they tan it. Then in December they make coat out of it, along one too. I remember it. People wear a long one, and the ruff is wolf skin or wolverine.
Suzi Jones: Who would have worn this?
Trimble Gilbert: Well I think it looks like it’s for a woman or a man. [Around] 1850, 1860, everybody wore this. A lot of people used to put it on for a special ceremony too. Everybody dressed real pretty at that time. They kept it inside that caribou bag. Took care of it really good.
Eliza Jones: This is usually summer dress or a dress-up dress. And for everyday wear, they wore the more practical [clothing], so it’s easier to move around in.
Judy Woods: And probably wore moccasins with this. And then probably a headband if they were dressed up.
Trimble Gilbert: Yes, maybe for a celebration, a big ceremony. They got together a lot doing something. At Yukon Flats, a famous chief used to live there called Shahnyaatì‘. They tried to bring in people from different areas, so everybody came—from Northway, Eagle, Tanana and everywhere, they came together. And that’s the time they had celebrations, and they all wore this kind of fancy clothes. And big time competitions too, wrestling and everything.
Greetings & potlatches
Trimble Gilbert: [They had a] lot of respect for each other in those times. I remember when people were going to Ft. Yukon—a chief or anybody else going—before they got into the place, they knew that a chief was there, important people were there. So they built a fire and dressed up in fancy clothes to meet the people there. This is how much they respected each other a long time ago.
Eliza Jones: I know that around home in the spring, they used to gather at the mouth of the Koyukuk River. So people from up the Koyukuk River would travel down the Koyukuk River. Somebody way up would start down from their spring camp, go to the next, and that family joined them. They kept going down the river, and more and more people joined them. Then before they got to the mouth [of the Koyukuk River], they would camp and allow everybody to catch up with them. Then they all tied their canoes together and rafts, then they would go down the river. Before they came to Koyukuk, there’s Meneelghaadze’ [mountain bluff near the village of Koyukuk]—even in Grandma’s time she said there were guns—they would shoot into the water. And also there was one white spot on the Meneelghaadze’, they would shoot at that. Ceremonies—they were unlocking that. They always saved some [shotgun] shells to greet the people in the village with. So the people in the village would hear them, and they would take their guns out and shoot into the river. And then as they were coming across, the people in the boats were singing, and all the people on the bank of the Koyukuk River, they would dance to that.
Then they would land, and they’d keep on singing, the singer coming up and they’re all dancing behind him.
And Effie Kokrine also told similar story. In 1918, there was a big potlatch in Old Kokrine, and she said she was a little girl. She said she was in a boat, and they were coming into Old Kokrine, and all these people were singing. She remembered she just felt a chill running up and down her body from all of these people singing and dancing as they’re landing at Old Kokrine. They probably all wore dresses like that and their head gear, tleegooyh [headdress] with feathers.
Judy Woods: That’s the same kind of celebration they used to have in Tanana too.
Aron Crowell: It would be interesting to talk a little about a potlatch.
Trimble Gilbert: One I was talking about in Ft. Yukon is when Shahnyaatì‘ [Gwich’in chief] brought in all the people from different places. And they don’t just come down with nothing, they carry a lot of items like caribou skin and moose skin, tanned ones.
And they had traditional [clothing] like this, also food, maybe dried meat. Everybody came together, and they had big feasts. And they did a lot of competitions too, wrestling and games. Then after everything was over, they traded, “I want to give you this one. Take it home.” And each one of them did that with maybe moose skin, all available things. Then they went home.
Eliza Jones: Maybe things like that [tunic]. Things that are hard to get.
Trimble Gilbert: Yes. And then after, they talked to each other, and then they went home with what they heard from each other. And this was the way they survived—from each other.
Aron Crowell: Does the host of the potlatch have to give the most?
Eliza Jones: Not necessarily.
Judy Woods: They help each other.
Trimble Gilbert: They help each other.
Eliza Jones: Down in the Southeast, it’s a little bit different I think. Southeast people [Tlingit, Haida & Tsimshian] have a bit of a different custom. Around home I think it’s pretty much sharing, everybody sharing.
[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.”
3. According to Gwich’in translator Hishinlai’ “Kathy” Sikorski, vitł‘èets’al [pointed] refers to the V-shaped hem point of the garment.
Russian explorer Lavrentiy Zagoskin wrote in 1842-44 that Athabascan peoples of the Alaskan interior were “passionately fond of finery and bright colors.”(1)
This man’s summer tunic, made of soft, lightly smoked caribou hide and embroidered with dyed porcupine quills, came from Gwich’in people of the upper Yukon-Porcupine River region, an area that spans both sides of the Alaska-Canada border. Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader Bernard Ross acquired this garment for the Smithsonian in the 1850s or early 1860s, at a time when trade beads were still scarce and Gwich’in skin sewers decorated most clothing with geometrically-patterned bands of dyed, flattened porcupine quills.(2) Blue and red beads are used sparingly to decorate the fringes, which are also wrapped in quills. The seams and edges are outlined with a red paint made from ocher, a highly valued iron clay or mineral that was often applied to clothing and woodwork.(3)
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.
(4) 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.(5) They were worn in combination with moccasin trousers (pants with built-in feet), a belt, cap, and mittens.(6) 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.(7)
Some contemporary Athabascan artists make the old style tunics, which went out of everyday use across most of Alaska by the end of the 19th century, and also carry on the tradition of porcupine quill embroidery.(8) Shirley Holmberg from Tanana, an expert quill worker, said, “I like to use fat long quills to cover more space. These long quills are the ones you see the porcupine stick out when he is protecting himself. You have to soak the quills. If you use them just like they are, they crack.”
The quills are flattened and then sewn down using sinew thread.(9)
1. Michael 1967:244
2. Duncan 1989:33-38; Thompson 1994:15-17
3. Hadleigh West 1963:230; McKennan 1959:68; Osgood 1936:93, 1940:383-385; Schmitter 1985:10
4. 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
5. Vanstone 1981:8-10
6. McKennan 1959:78
7. Thompson 1994:25
8. Duncan 1989:89, 1997:24-25; Steinbright 1984:90-92
9. Steinbright 1984:90-91