Saturday, February 10, 2007

Wearing Fur

To celebrate the end of an incredibly long and busy week—which contributed strongly to the lack of posting here—Dutch took me out for lunch on Friday. It was the only day this week that I actually got a lunch break, and it was so nice to get away from the hospital and have most of an hour with him.

As we were finishing our meal, a young man who used to work at the hospital came in with his grandmother to have lunch. She was dressed in one of the most beautiful fur parkas I have ever seen. I had to go over and say hello to him and meet her. Her weathered face was a mass of wrinkles that crinkled easily into a sparkly-eyed smile. She was happy to pose for a photo.

The parka she is wearing is one of many that she made over the years. She is a skinsewer of great skill and artistry. This parka is made of beaver, wolf, marten, and wolverine, with the borders at wrist and hem made of cowhide trimmed with mink.

In the old days, the animals would have been hunted by her sons and brought home for her to skin, stretch and tan the hides. She would have softened the leather by chewing it, which is why many old skinsewers have teeth so worn down they barely show above the gum line. These days, most of the few remaining skinsewers have their furs and hides tanned professionally.

A parka such as this one would take several months to make, and would sell for two to three thousand dollars in Bethel. It might represent most of a year’s income to the skinsewer. This parka is lined with a quilted cotton flannel. Sometimes, for additional warmth, such a garment would be lined with rabbit fur.

The wearing of fur is an essential part of survival in the Yupik Eskimo culture. There is simply nothing as warm as fur, even in this age of miracle fabrics and high-tech gear. It retains heat when wet and is impervious to wind. And it is so incredibly warm. A well-made fur garment is beautiful to look at and luxuriously soft to touch. One feels elegant wearing it.

Those latter qualities are what have made wearing fur a status and fashion statement in the warmer parts of the world where it is totally unnecessary to survival. In my younger and more radical years, I was not only opposed to such activity, I was out demonstrating against it. Though I’ve mellowed somewhat with age, I still believe that if fleece and Gore-tex will keep you warm, then wear it. But when it is so cold that only fur will prevent hypothermia and frostbite, then I wear fur. It has been key to Eskimo survival (both Inuit and Yupik) in the harsh climate of the Arctic and sub-Arctic for thousands of years. The Real People (which is what the Yupik call themselves) could never have survived here without the animals which provide food, clothing, and even shelter.
Photo by The Tundra PA



Blogger SeaSpray said...

What a beautiful coat!!!!! I was instantly drawn to it. She looks like such a precious lady with a truly radiant smile. The work on that coat is amazing.

I can't imagine all the chewing necessary to make a baby sized coat never mind a full sized adult.

What a different life up there. Thanks for the interesting post. :)

Sunday, February 11, 2007 9:15:00 AM  
Blogger Kyle said...

You may have gone over this before, but could you elaborate some on the terms Eskimo, Inuit, and Yupik, and who each describes? BTW, beautiful coat.

Sunday, February 11, 2007 5:47:00 PM  
Blogger TBTAM said...

How cute is She!She reminds me of my grandmother...

Sunday, February 11, 2007 6:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Endoc said...

Great picture! It's wonderful to see that people are still really wearing parkas like that - that they aren't just exhibits in museums nowadays.

Sunday, February 11, 2007 6:28:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

SeaSpray--yes, life is definitely different up here! I'm glad you find my descriptions interesting. Thanks for visiting, and for commenting.

Kyle--somewhere in the archives I have described this, but my sidebars have disappeared and I can't access my archives to find it for you. Basically, Alaska Native means either Indian or Eskimo (and any combination). The Indian tribes are Athabascan, Tlingit, Haida and some smaller ones. The Eskimo are Inuit (Inupiat), Yupik, Chupik, or Aleut. The Inuit inhabit the northern half of Alaska and Canada; the Yupik and Chupik inhabit the Alaskan southwest; the Aleuts were from the Aleutian Chain; and the Indian tribes in the Interior and Southeast Alaska. With lots of variation, and I don't claim to be an expert.

tbtam--she was so sweet, I wanted to hug her. And tiny--something under five feet tall.

endoc--such parkas are not uncommon, though this was a particularly fine example. Many elders wear fur mukluks also--knee-high boots with soles made of chewed moose or whale hide. For insulation they are stuffed with grass. Living in bush Alaska really is the last frontier. Thanks for visiting, and for commenting.

Sunday, February 11, 2007 6:57:00 PM  
Blogger Kyle said...

Thanks, Tundra PA! I was losing the distinction of what all the different groups mean, having never been in Alaska myself! Thanks!

Monday, February 12, 2007 5:18:00 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

What a beautiful little old lady! The coat too- practically a work of art...

There's absolutely nothing wrong with wearing fur if the climate requires it... it's just when rich wankers living in places like New York or Sydney wear fur that it really becomes a travesty.

Monday, February 12, 2007 7:25:00 PM  

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