Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/December 1890/Dress and Physique of the Point-Barrow Eskimos

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THE people who live on the extreme northwest corner of our continent are far from being an ugly or an ill-made race. Though they are not tall—a man of five feet ten inches is a tall man among them—they are well-proportioned, broad-shouldered, and deep-chested. The men, as a rule, are particularly well "set up," like well-drilled soldiers, and walk and stand with a great deal of grace and dignity. I fancy that a good deal of the erect carriage of the men comes from their habit of carrying the gun, or in old times the bow, in a case slung across the back, by a string passing round the chest.

The women do not have such good figures, but are inclined to slouchiness, which they perhaps get from trotting ahead of the dogs when traveling with sledges. They are seldom inclined to be fleshy, though their plump, round faces, along with their thick fur clothing, often give them the appearance of being fat. They generally have round, full faces, with rather high cheek-bones, small, rounded noses, full lips, and small chins. Still, you now and then see a person with an oval face and aquiline nose. Many of the men are very good-looking, and some of the young women are exceedingly pretty. Their complexion is a dark brunette, often with a good deal of bright color on the cheeks and especially on the lips. They sunburn very much, especially in the spring, when the glare of the sun is reflected from the snow. They have black or dark-brown eyes and abundant black hair. The women's hair is often long and silky. When they are young they have white and regular teeth, but these are worn down to stumps before middle life is reached. Cheerful and merry faces are the rule, and they are altogether pleasant people to see and to associate with. The men cut their hair square across the forehead and comb it down into a regular "straight bang," with long locks on each side of the head, covering the ears, but clip a round spot on the crown of the head like a monk's tonsure, and a strip about two inches wide from this tonsure down the back of the head to the nape of the neck. They say that, unless the hair is clipped off on the crown and back of the head, the man will suffer from snow-blindness in the spring. The women part their long hair smoothly down the middle from the forehead to the back of the neck, and gather it into a braid on each side behind the ear. When they are dressed up, these braids are wound round and round with a long string of small, bright-colored beads, and the whole finished off with a flat brass button fastened into the hair behind each ear. They wear ear-rings, too, usually made of long glass beads, dangling from a little ivory hook which fits into the hole in the ear. They are all tattooed with one, three, or five narrow blue lines running from the under lip to the chin. The men are seldom tattooed, but instead, they wear the curious labrets, or lip-studs, which are peculiar to the Eskimos of the Northwest. These are large studs of stone or bone, like sleeve-buttons, which are buttoned into holes in the under lip, one at each corner of the mouth. At first sight, these ornaments appear a hideous disfigurement, but it is surprising how quickly one gets used to them. The most fashionable labrets, which are worn on "swell" occasions, are made of white marble in the form of flat disks, about an inch and a half in diameter, with half a large blue-glass bead glued to the middle of each. Others are shaped like plugs, and are made of black, white, or gray stone. They used to pick up the stoppers of Worcestershire-sauce bottles that we threw away, and make labrets of them. All they had to do was to grind off the knob on top a little, to make it fit comfortably between the lip and gum.

Their clothes are made almost wholly of the skins of wild animals, though they sometimes wear outside frocks of calico or drilling. The skin which is most commonly used is that of the reindeer, which is perhaps the best material that could be found for clothing in a cold climate. It is very warm and at the same time very light, and can be had of various thicknesses, from the short-haired fawn-skin, fit for making handsome thin clothing, to the heavy winter coat of the buck, suitable for blankets or thick clothing, to wear in the very coldest weather.

A man's full suit of clothes consists of a loose frock, with no opening except at the neck, provided with a hood that can be drawn up over the head, and a pair of close-fitting knee-breeches, tied down with draw-strings over the tops of the long boots. In cold weather a second frock is worn under the first, with the hair side next the skin, and an extra pair of breeches. On the feet are worn long stockings of thick deer-skin, with the hair next the skin, and outside of these the tight-fitting boots, which in winter are made of the short-haired skin of the deer's legs, with soles of sealskin tanned white, and in summer of water-proof sealskin, with the hair carefully scraped off without removing the black epidermis, with soles made of the skin of the bearded seal or the white whale. These boot-soles are very neatly crimped up all round the foot, like the soles of moccasins. The crimping is done with the teeth, which is one reason why the women's teeth wear out so quickly.

I know of no warmer and more comfortable foot-gear for a cold climate than the Eskimo fur stocking and deerskin boot, with the elastic pad of whalebone shavings worn under the foot, between the stocking and the boot as they wear it.

The man's frock is cut off square across the skirts, and reaches about to the middle of the thigh. The women wear a good deal longer frock, which comes down in two rounded flaps, one in front and one behind, nearly or quite to the knees. This frock, too, is made looser in the back than the man's, so as to make room for the mother to carry her little baby inside, and there is a special bulge in the hood just at the back of the neck to make room for the youngster's head. Instead of breeches and boots, the woman wears tight-fitting pantaloons all in one piece with the shoes, which have soles like those of the men's boots. These pantaloons are made of deer-skin in winter, but in summer they are made of the same stuff as the men's water-proof boots. The men sometimes wear pantaloons like the women, and the boys all do till they arrive at manhood and have their lips pierced for the labrets. The boys wear jackets like the men's, but the little girls' dress is a perfect miniature of the women's, even to the pocket at the back of the neck for the baby's head. Indeed, the larger girls sometimes do duty as nurses, and carry round their little sisters in their jackets like grown women.

The usual material for jackets is reindeer-skin, prepared without any process of tanning. The skin is first dried in the sun, and then the stiff under membrane is carefully scraped off with a very effective tool made of a small piece of flint chipped into a blunt blade, and fitted into a handle of ivory or wood, shaped so as to fit exactly into the hollow of the hand. This scraping also serves to soften the skin, just as you soften a sheet of stiff paper by rubbing it up, and the skin is finally finished off by rubbing it with pumice-stone and gypsum or chalk. When the skin is finished the inside looks and feels like white wash-leather, but, of course, is easily spoiled by wetting. All sorts of skins that are to be used with the hair on are dressed in this way.

To make a frock of ordinary thickness, they usually select the skins of does in their summer coat, one for the front and one for the back, and put them together so that the best part of the skin, on the back of the animal, comes on the front and back of the person where it will show, while the poorer skin from the belly is concealed under the arms or the sides. The head of one skin is made into the hood by fitting it in with seams. All these garments are made on regular patterns, just as our clothes are; all jackets, for instance, having practically the same number of pieces. To make the frock fit round the neck, there is a curved triangular piece let in on each side of the throat, and these throat-pieces are always made of the white skin from the belly of the deer, no matter what is the color of the rest of the garment. This gives a very pretty effect to the frock.

Heavy frocks for very cold weather, especially for wear when out on the ice seal-hunting, are made of skins of deer in the thick gray winter coat. Now and then you see a frock made of the Alaskan variety of the mountain sheep, which is of a pale buff color, almost white. Full-dress frocks are also made of the white or variegated white and brown skins of the tame Siberian reindeer, which they get by trading from the Eskimos whom they meet in the summer at the mouth of the Colville River. The latter get them from Kotzebue Sound, whither they are brought from Asia across Bering Strait. These skins are highly prized.

There was one old fellow at Cape Smyth who was a very great dandy. He owned, among other fine clothes, two very "swell" frocks, one made wholly of ermine-skins put together in stripes of brown summer skins and white winter skins alternately, with the tails and feet dangling, and another of blue and white fox-skins put together in alternate stripes.

The every-day frock has very little trimming except a fringe of wolverine fur around the wrist, and a strip of long-haired wolf-skin round the edge of the hood, so that, when the hood is drawn up over the head, the long hair stands out all round the face like a halo. This is not merely an ornament, but also serves to protect the face against the wind. Working frocks are often without even this frill. Full-dress jackets are often very prettily trimmed with edging made of alternate strips of light and dark skins, fringed with wolverine fur, and often ornamented with little knots of red worsted.

The breeches are usually made of heavier deer-skin than the frock, so that only one pair is more often worn than a single frock, and then with the hair inside. Full-dress breeches are tastefully trimmed with edging like the jacket. The boots and the women's pantaloons, as I have said, are generally made of the skin of the deer's legs, and it is the fashion to have the white patch from the inside of the deer's leg always on the outside of the ankle. A specially fashionable style of boot has the leg made of alternate stripes of white and brown skin, with a very pretty effect. Women's pantaloons also are often made this way below the knee.

Eskimo dandies, instead of having their boots kept up by the draw-strings of their breeches, have the tops finished off with a fancy edging, and kept up by draw-strings of their own. To keep the moccasin-like sole of the boot from getting out of shape and running over on one side, there is a pair of strings fastened to the edge of the sole near the heel, crossed over the instep, and tied round the ankle.

There are several kinds of material used for making boot-soles, and each is supposed to be specially suited for some particular purpose. For walking on dry snow, the best boot-soles are made of sealskin which has been rolled up and allowed to "heat" and ferment a little before drying, so that the epidermis can be scraped off with the hair. This looks like cream-colored morocco and will not stand the least wetting. For walking on the rough sea-ice they prefer to have soles made of sealskin dressed with the hair on, and worn with the flesh-side out; but for their water-proof boots they use the thicker skin of the great bearded seal, or, if they can get it, of the white whale, dressed with oil. Sometimes the skin of the polar bear is made into water-proof soles. The white whale skin is the best material. It makes a translucent, honey-yellow leather, about an eighth of an inch thick, stands the water very well, and is quite durable.

Under the outer pantaloons the women wear a second pair of thicker deer-skin, skin-side out, with stocking-feet. When the spring comes, and the snow gets sloppy on the surface, they discard the outer pantaloons and put on water-proof boots like the men's, but held up by a draw-string just below the knee. Later in the season, when there is a good deal of wet weather, and they are knocking around in boats, they wear pantaloons made wholly of water-proof black sealskin. All these pantaloons, like the men's breeches, are rather short in the waist, and are held up by a girdle just above the hips. Like a sailor's trousers, they need a good deal of hitching up.

The frock is always confined round the waist by a girdle, often merely a strip of skin. The men, however, often have handsome belts about an inch and a half wide, woven of the shafts of feathers. By using black and white feathers a very neat pattern is produced. The fashionable ladies' belt is made by sewing together bits of fur from the feet of the wolverine, each with a single claw attached.

Fastened to the belt behind, every man and boy wears the bushy tail of some animal. A wolverine's tail is the "correct thing"; but those who can not afford this wear the tail of the wolf or the Eskimo dog. This fashion gave rise to the story, told by the old Russian voyagers, of men with tails on the American coast.

It is also very fashionable to wear the skin of an ermine dangling from the frock between the shoulders, or an eagle's feather in the same place or on the back of the hood. These are amulets, and are supposed to bring good luck, like the dried birds' heads, bear's claws, and other such things which the men wear dangling from the belt.

The only head-covering is the hood of the frock, which comes forward just far enough to cover the ears. In very cold weather, or when they are sitting on the ice watching for seals, the men wear cloaks of deer-skin over their other clothes. When it rains, or when they are out in the boats in rough weather, both men and women draw over their other clothes a frock made of strips of the entrails of the seal dried and stitched together. This frock has a hood which fits close round the face, and is quite water-proof.

Since these people have had so much to do with the white men, they have taken to wearing a good deal of bright-colored calico. Of this they make long frocks without hoods, which they wear over their furs in blustering weather to keep the snow from getting on to them.

Of course, in such a climate, the hands need to be well protected, and 'they have first-rate gloves and mittens. The gloves are always made of dressed deer-skin, with the hair-side in, and usually have a fringe of wolverine fur round the wrists. They are specially meant for dress occasions, and are often tastefully ornamented. The common, every-day mittens are made of thick deer-skin, and are always worn with the hair next the hand. Both men and women, particularly the women, when they have no work to do that requires both hands, have a great habit of wearing only one mitten, and drawing the other hand back through the sleeve inside the jacket for warmth.

In very cold weather, particularly when hunting or traveling, they wear very thick mittens made of the shaggy hide of the polar bear. These keep the hands very warm, and one of these mittens held upon the windward side of the face makes a capital screen against the sharp wind. The long, harsh hair, too, makes a firstrate brush for dusting off frost and snow from the clothes, and for brushing up the floor. When hunting with the rifle in winter, the hunter wears a pair of thin deer-skin gloves under his mittens. Then, when he is ready for a shot, he slips off his clumsy mittens, and can handle his gun without burning his fingers on the cold iron.

Of course, all these clothes are made by the women, who cut them out by their eye very skillfully, using their favorite tool, a broad knife shaped like a chopping-knife, which they use for cutting everything, from their food to a thread. This is better than scissors for cutting furs, because in cutting from the skin-side you cut the skin without cutting the hair.

For sewing skins they make their own thread by stripping fibers from a piece of dried sinew, but use nowadays steel needles and common brass thimbles. They do not sew as a white woman does, but wear the thimble on the forefinger and thrust the needle through from left to right. In old times their needles were made from the small bones of the reindeer's legs, and they used thimbles made of a bit of sealskin, in the shape of a ring with a pad on one side to press against the needle.

The great time for making new clothes is in October and November, which are named in the Eskimo calendar "the time for sewing" and the "second time for sewing" All summer long they have been living in tents and knocking round outdoors, and their clothes have grown pretty shabby and dirty. Now they have come back for the winter, and the time has come to make new clothes. But deer-skin clothes must not be made in the village while the hunters are out after seals, for that would bring bad luck; so the women take their work out into little tents pitched some distance from the houses.

By the time December comes, and with it the season for the winter festivals, everybody in the village has his new clothes for the year, and all look neat and trim in fresh brown deer-skins and clean white mittens and breeches.