parkas (precontact) North American Arctic and Subarctic cultures

Parkas — loose-fitting, hooded jackets — were invented by the Inuit people who lived near the Arctic Circle. The parka has been adopted by the non-Indian world and has become a popular and fashionable winter-wear design throughout the world. Although the design is an American Indian invention, the word parka is of Russian word given to this unique style of jacket. Parka in Russian means “reindeer fur coat.” The Inuit call a parka an anorak. Caribou and seal skin provided the most common material used to make Inuit parkas, but polar bear and fox fur, ground squirrel pelts, and even the skins of birds, were also used to make them.

parkaWorn by native people from Greenland to Alaska long before contact with Europeans, parkas varied in length from mid-thigh to ankle length. The main purpose of parka construction and design was to provide warmth for the wearer. To that end in winter two parkas were usually worn, one with the fur facing in and the other with the fur facing out. The layering allowed for air circulation and also provided better insulation. The Inuit often made the inner garment of young caribou or sealskin to provide softness for the wearer. Caribou fur, one of the most popular liners, has hollow hairs, providing high thermal efficiency, even in the coldest of temperatures. Parka makers sometimes lined the garments with cormorant or puffin skins, a technique that produced the same effect as today’s duck, goose, or eider down jackets. When entire parkas were made from birdskins, the seams were insulated with ermine, caribou, or mountain goat fur that served as a barrier against the wind.

A garment’s ability to conserve body heat means nothing if the article of clothing becomes wet and evaporation quickly lowers the wearer’s body temperature. Sealskin by itself is relatively water repellent, but Inuit hunters improved yet further on it by making parka covers from Chinook salmon skins and wearing these over parkas during snow or rain. (See also WATERPROOFING.) Inuit living in some areas pieced together parka covers from whale bladders, intestines, or from the skin of a whale’s tongue. Although European contact brought many changes to Inuit life, hunters kept their parkas and parka covers, long after the introduction of trade cloth because they worked better at keeping out cold and dampness than factory made imports.

The parka’s hood made this style of jacket ideal hunting attire. Because the hood was close-fitting, it left vision unobstructed. Since it was attached to the jacket, it did not blow away in the wind the way a hat would have done. The parka’s construction featured broad shoulders, enabling a full range of arm movement and allowed a hunter to pull his arms into the body of the garment for added warmth. Often hunters dressed in caribou fur parkas, not only to keep warm, but also to pursue caribou. By the same token, a seal hunter might wear a sealskin parka while seal hunting. Inuit hunters used this strategy to help themselves identify with their prey and to serve as CAMOUFLAGE. George Best, who served as an officer on Englishman Martin Frobisher’s expeditions to locate a Northwest Passage in the late sixteenth century, wrote of the Inuit, “They are good fishermen, and in their small boats, and disguised with their sealskin coats, they deceive the fish, who take them for fellow seals rather than deceiving men.”

The Inuit designed women’s parkas slightly differently than those made for men. Women’s parkas were made with a pouchlike recess on the back in the inside for carrying an infant, who was supported by a strap around the mother’s chest. This pouch was called an amaut. Mothers carried their infants in this baby carrier for the first two to three years of their lives. (See also CRADLE BOARDS.) The larger hoods on women’s parkas than on men’s allowed air to circulate and broader shoulders allowed a mother to move the child to breast feed it without exposing it to the cold.

See also MUKLUKS.

Sources/Further Reading

Driscoll, Bernadette. The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

Josephy, Jr. Alvin M (ed.) America in 1492: The World of the Indian People Before the Arrival of Columbus. New York: Random House, 1991.

Oswalt, Wendell. Eskimos and Explorers. Novato, Calif.: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, 1979.

Paterek, Josephine, PhD. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Denver: Colo.: ABC Clio, Inc., 1994.