February 2008 Artifact of the Month
Artifact: Puffin Parka
This puffin parka was crafted by a member of a Yup’ik tribe, who are originally from the arctic regions of Southwestern Alaska and Northwestern Siberia. It was crafted from the skins of the puffin bird, which are good for making a parka because they are strong, but also very light. Caribou is the preferred material for making outerwear garments, but the puffin was often used because of its abundance and also because of the feather’s waterproofing effects. Handcrafted parkas, traditionally made by the women in the tribe, were valued for their quality and utility and were sometimes traded with the Russians or given as gifts to governmental officials.
An adult size parka that reaches below the knee and includes a close fitting hood consists of about 40 to 45 bird skins. The feathers on the bird skins are worn inward for warmth, or on the outside when it is warmer or when it is raining. The feathers are also worn outward for special occasions and celebrations. In order to prevent the puffin skins from deteriorating, first they were dried slightly and then soaked in urine so that the fat on the skin would be removed. Then they needed to re-dry before finally being scraped and then chewed on by the seamstresses so that they became soft and pliable. Puffin parkas embellishments can include caribou skin, sea lion esophagus, sea otter fur, and sometimes have the puffin beaks attached as decoration. They could be painted with browns and reds, and often have a square-like yoke at the neck area, which is thought to represent the tusks of a walrus. Others are black and white in color and feature a collar that stands up, rather than a hood.
The puffin parka shown is an artifact from the Schingoethe Center. It has a zipper front and a commercially quilted lining. The exterior is in the traditional style and made from whole bird skins that are white and brown, and arranged in a striped pattern. There is also fur on the hood and hem.
Aurora University Alum Mary Killgore, who wore this parka to the Governor’s Ball in Alaska in 1972, kindly donated it to the Schingoethe Center. It was made especially for Mary by Jeanette Noonqwuk, who is from Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island in Alaska.