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Snowshoe technology has been refined by Alaska’s Indigenous peoples over thousands of years. Snowshoe frames were typically made from straight birch or strong driftwood and steam bent into the appropriate shape. Webbing was made of babiche (semi-tanned hide cut into thin strips of cordage). In Dena’ina Athabascan culture, a child of three or four would be given a set of snowshoes. The snowshoes were indispensable for travel during the winter months and, by a relatively young age, children learned to master walking in them. They were customized for the individual and children received increasingly larger pairs as they continued to grow. Each region of Alaska had their own styles of snowshoes based on local geography and climate, but all snowshoes function in the same way by distributing a person's weight over a larger area. This allows the wearer to float above the snow and to travel longer distances without becoming fatigued.
By the middle of the 20th century, the skills and knowledge needed to craft traditional snowshoes had largely disappeared as mass-produced snowshoes became widely available. By the late 1970s, new materials, such as aluminum and plastics, were incorporated into snowshoe designs. Composite materials revolutionized the form, dimension, weight, and other physical features of modern snowshoes. Since that time, continued refinements have allowed snowshoes to become smaller, lighter, cheaper and easier for the novice to use. These innovations have led to the rising popularity of snowshoeing as a winter activity and renewed interest in learning from the few traditional snowshoe makers left in Alaska.
Credits:Esan, Gift of Leonard Grau, Anchorage Museum Collection, 1955.9.4ab
Photo by Ferenc Cegledi on iStock
Like modern metal cleats or grippers, bone or ivory ice cleats (also known as creepers or grippers) were worn on the bottoms of boots for better traction on slippery ice. Secured to the front end of a boot with a leather strap, bone or ivory cleats were used for a number of different outdoor winter activities requiring firm footing on icy surfaces. In Northern coastal areas, Alaska Native peoples used cleats while working on slick ramps where boats were launched, especially during the spring when the warm sun begins to melt the ice.
Today, a variety of metal cleats are available through retailers, marketed as gear to keep the wearer safe walking in the winter. Some of the better-known brands include IceTrekkers, Stabil, Yaktrax, Kahtoola, and Korkers. Heavy-duty and specialty versions of the original ice cleats, with more substantial metal spikes for digging into ice, are known as crampons, which are used in mountaineering and ice climbing.
St. Lawrence Island Yupik artist, Gift of Greg Quevillon, Anchorage Museum Collection, 1979.102.1ab
Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash
The wooden halibut hook is a fishing technology that has been used for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America. The V-shaped hook is expertly engineered to catch the massive fish and is often carved with an image on the arm intended to entice a halibut to swallow the hook whole. The hook is designed to catch in the cheek when the hook is spit out.
The overall construction of the hook involves expert craftsmanship, including calibration of the tensile strength of cedar rope, which is used for the line. The hook itself is often constructed using two different types of wood (one heavy and one lighter for buoyancy), and the angle between the upper and lower arms of the hook is measured using the carver’s thumb. Although there are few fishermen who still fish with wooden halibut hooks, there are carvers teaching people how to make and use the hooks as a process of cultural revitalization.
In February 2018, the wooden halibut hook was inducted into the Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame, the first Indigenous tool to be honored, due to its continued artistic and environmental relevance after centuries of use.
Tlingit artist, Transferred from the Hastings Museum, Hastings, NE, Anchorage Museum Collection, 1970.10.2
Photo courtesy of Thomas George
Perhaps the only Arctic invention to be incorporated into a summer Olympic sport, kayaking and kayaks have been integral to costal life in the Circumpolar North region for thousands of years. All kayaks share the same basic shape and were traditionally made from animal skins stretched over a wood or whalebone frame. Within the iconic kayak shape, however, there is great regional variation in design, including two-hull and even three-hull kayaks. These were used in Alaska to transport Russian priests and officers. The word kayak is an anglicized version of the proto-Eskimo word qyaq.
Danish peoples first contacted Inuit peoples in the 13th century. By the mid-1800s, kayak design was embraced by residents of Europe. However, instead of using these boats to hunt, a sport was created around kayaking. The boats popularized at the time had soft-sided frames, while kayaks today are often made from rigid plastic or fiberglass materials.
Martin Family Collection, Anchorage Museum, B2007.5.2.311
Photo by Marek Uliasz on iStock
For thousands of years, Alaska Native peoples used dogs to help them survive in Alaska’s challenging climate. Puppies were trained to carry packs on their backs and how to behave while traveling from place to place, sometimes across great distances. Most Alaskan Native peoples used dogs for hunting and packing supplies rather than as part of a large sled dog team.
Athabascans made dog packs from caribou legs, as this part of the animal is light, strong, and the fur is less prone to shedding. Well-trained dogs could be sent back and forth between a hunter’s kill and camp, ferrying meat to lighten the hunter’s load.
Recently, outdoor enthusiasts are embracing modern versions of these packs. Made from light, durable materials such as nylon, velcro and cordura, these packs allow dogs to carry their own food and a few other items for their owners while hiking and trekking.
August Cohn Collection, Anchorage Museum, B1997.22.234.D1A4421
Photo by Halie West on Unsplash
Grass socks were the original moisture wicking layer. In cold or wet weather, woven grass socks were worn by men and women inside their skin boots as comfortable liners to keep their feet warm and dry. They could also be worn with additional layers of insulation, such as fur socks, wool socks, and grass padding.
The absorbent and wicking properties of dried grass are explained by two phenomena. First, as grass dries, air pockets form within it. Second, the more grass surface area is present, as when loosely packed inside a boot, the greater amount of absorption. Because grass socks are tightly twined, the exposed surface area is relatively low, absorbs little, and in effect “wicks” water to the more absorbent loosely packed grass around the socks.
In Yup’ik communities, tall cotton grass, which grows around ponds and in wet tundra areas, is used for making socks because it is softer than beach grass and can be wetted over and over without breaking. Harvesting grass was a major fall activity for women, requiring hours of labor. Either before or after freeze-up, women collected grass when it turned pale. After grass was harvested, it was dried and stored for safe keeping until it was needed for making socks, mittens, mats, baskets, or other woven materials.
Similar to the moisture wicking properties of woven grass socks, wool base layers made by companies such as Smartwool or Icebreaker utilize organic materials to produce warm and comfortable garments for outdoor activities. Merino wool is soft, moisture-wicking, thermoregulating, and odor-neutralizing.
Yup’ik artist, Gift of Fred and Sara Machetanz, Anchorage Museum Collection, 1995.35.59ab
Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash
Anthropologists believe that archery arrived in Alaska and the Arctic at least six thousand years ago, eventually spreading to the rest of the US no later than 500 AD. In much of costal Alaska, wood is scarce and what is available makes for weak bows, which, in turn, makes killing large animals difficult. One ingenuous innovation to strengthen bows and to increase arrow speed was the creation of sinew-backed bows. Also known as cable bows, these weapons were made by using braided sinew running the length of the bow. A series of twists and hitches were used to strengthen the bow and increase its peak draw weight. Different regions of Alaska appear to have adapted this basic concept to create bows that suited their unique environments.
The modern compound bow traces its roots to Holless Wilbur Allen. In the early 1960s, Allen was experimenting with the creation of the first compound bow. At first, Allen tried sawing the ends off of a recurve bow and attaching pulleys, which created a crude block-and-tackle system. It didn't work well, and after four years of experimenting, he developed a system of cams and eccentric wheels in place of the original pulley system. He patented his design, and by the 1970s compound bows rose to dominate the field of archery. These bows featured increased arrow speed and reduction of peak draw weights. This allowed hunters to hold the bow at a full draw for extended periods of time, with the cams and wheels absorbing and storing the energy before transferring it back to the bow when the archer released the string.
Murdoch, John. 1884. "A Study of the Eskimo bows in the U.S. National Museum.” in Report of the United States National Museum for the year 1884 (Pt. 2 of the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1884), 307–316, 12 pls.
United States patent office
Baleen is a strong yet flexible material that comes from whales. Made from keratin (the same protein that makes human hair and fingernails), baleen is connected to a whale’s mouth, and its long bristles help filter krill from the sea water.
Alaska Native peoples have been hunting bowhead whales and using their baleen for thousands of years. Baleen was used to make buckets, cups, and other containers as well as ice scoops, sled runners, fishing line, lashing, and nets. Today, the subsistence hunt for whales is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and hunting is allowed only for registered members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Although people continue to harvest whales, baleen is now used primarily for production of art and other cultural objects.
Synthetic materials, such as plastic and fiberglass, are more commonly used to craft items once made with baleen. For instance, modern plastics have largely replaced sled runners, and, in general, sleds have been replaced with alternate modes of transportation, such as snowmachines.
The success and dominance of plastics in the 20th century has led to environmental concerns. Plastic littering the world’s oceans are having affects that researchers are only just beginning to understand. Pollution and climate change are contributing to rising ocean temperatures, dwindling sea ice, and coastal erosion, which, in turn, negatively impacts marine wildlife, including the bowhead whale populations.
Steve McCutcheon Collection, Anchorage Museum, B1990.14.5.AKNative.7.8
Doug Ogden Photographs, Anchorage Museum, B2019.7.169
Commercial whaling in the United States dates to the 17th century in New England, with a peak between the years of 1846–1852.
The whaling industry targeted the harvest of three different raw materials from whales: whale oil, spermaceti oil (the prized oily wax from the head of the Sperm whale), and whalebone (baleen). Whale oil was the result of "trying-out" or rendering whale blubber by heating it in water. It was a primary lubricant for machinery, which was critical during the Industrial Revolution. Also, during the 19th century, whale oil lamps were popular in upper middle class and wealthy American homes.
In Alaska, the commercial whaling industry started in the 1830s and continued to the beginning of the 20th century when commercial treaties and depleted stocks saw a decline in commercial viability. However, whale oil was rapidly supplanted by petroleum.
The first commercial discovery of oil in Alaska was at Katalla, located 47 miles southeast of Cordova. The next major oil discovery was on the Swanson River near Kenai in 1957, which helped spur Statehood as well as the State’s selection of lands under the Statehood Act. Due to interest in oil and the existence of proven reserves on federal land the state strategically selected adjacent lands and started offering oil companies exploratory rights. In 1968, Humble Oil discovered the largest oil field in North America, which kick-started an economic boom in Alaska.
Alaska has been supplying the US with oil for almost two centuries.
Anchorage Museum Collection, 1984.9.2ab
Ward Wells Collection, Anchorage Museum, B1983.91.S4560.10
Organic GORE-TEX that actually breathes!
For thousands of years, Alaska Natives have used mammal intestines from seal, sea lion, beluga whale, and bear to create lightweight, breathable, waterproof coats. These garments were worn while paddling kayaks and umiaks to protect from the cold water and rain. Panels of gut were held together with a special waterproof stitch, resulting in a completely waterproof, but also fully breathable, jacket. Until the introduction of GORE-TEX in the early 1970s, most commercially available waterproof gear was made from heavy wax or oil-treated cloth and PVC-bonded cloth. PVC offered excellent waterproofing, but did not allow perspiration to escape, creating a clammy feeling for the wearer. Intestines have microscopic holes, large enough to allow perspiration to escape, but not big enough for rainwater to enter. GORE-TEX mimics the properties of intestine.
Martin Family Collection, Anchorage Museum, B2007.5.2.301
Photo by gopfaster on iStock
Living in the Arctic winter, a real fear exists of what is called snow blindness––a painful, temporary loss of vision due to overexposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun. This causes a sunburn on the cornea of the eye. With the springtime return of the sun, Alaskan Native peoples living in areas with little tree cover were especially susceptible to snow blindness. They adapted by inventing snow googles. With small slits serving as the eyeholes, the goggles not only protected the wearer’s eyes, but they also focused the incoming light, allowing for hunters to see farther. The wrap-around shape also shielded the eyes from light seeping in at the edges. Modern mountain climbing and polar expedition sunglasses mimic this design feature of snow goggles. One major advantage of snow goggles is the fact that, unlike sunglasses or ski googles, Native-made snow goggles never fog up and you don’t have to worry about scratching the lenses.
Steve McCutcheon Collection, Anchorage Museum, B1990.14.5.AKNative.24.49
Edward Remick, #10. after 25 years: 20,320 feet: 21 days (2010), Rasmuson Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, Anchorage Museum Collection, 2012.3.1.1
The original Baby Björn
Like the popular Baby Björn carrier for infants, Athabascan birch bark baby carriers enable the user to keep the child close to the body while at the same time allowing for hands-free activities. Many Athabascan peoples migrated seasonally with the animals, and they devised ingenious ways to carry babies as they traveled across the landscape. Made from readily available materials of birch bark and spruce root, these cradles could be quickly fashioned in a matter of hours and easily replaced as they became used and soiled. They could be quickly removed, and then used to situate the child comfortably in a nearby tree or on the ground. The main difference between the modern Baby Björn and the birch bark baby carrier is that Athabascans carried their babies on their backs, rather than strapping them to the chest.
The Baby Björn got its start from Bjorn Jakobson — himself a father of young children — after returning to Stockholm from a 1961 trip to America with an idea to market a “baby sitter” bouncer chair. At first, the fledgling entrepreneur was unable to persuade a single Stockholm department store to take a chance on the contraption. Ultimately, a few stores acquiesced, and the chair became a worldwide hit. But it was the Hjartenara (Close to the Heart) baby carrier, introduced in 1973 and later known as the Baby Björn, that made him a household name. Scientific discoveries at the time underscoring the importance of close parental contact in early childhood development fed the success of carrier. This is something that Athabascan people must have understood intuitively, as an important element of childrearing in a challenging subarctic environment.
Robert Wheatley Collection, Anchorage Museum, B1982.52.257
Photo by LeventKonuk on iStock