University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Inuit Kamik from Greenland


May 12, 2015

Fashion: Fur, Flowers, and Flannel

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Elizabeth Peng

Elizabeth Peng examines Eskimo (Inuit) women's boots from Greenland, in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum.
Elizabeth Peng examines Eskimo (Inuit) women’s boots from Greenland, in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Numbers 30-5-1A-D.

The clothes that we put on our bodies are rarely simple: they are imbued with cultural and aesthetic purposes that cannot be easily disconnected from the materials from which they are constructed. A myriad of factors come together to create the clothes that people wear, now and in the past. This is especially clear in the Greenlandic Inuit boots and stockings I examined at the Penn Museum (object numbers 30-5-1A to 30-5-1D).

The catalog card identifies them as having been made by the “Eskimo” culture in Greenland. The boot consist of sealskin leather, with a walrus hide sole. The tops of the boots are appliqued with leather bits arranged in a geometric pattern of Native design. The stockings, in contrast, consist of sealskin with fur on the inside, flipped over at the top to expose a fur border. On the top half of the stocking, under the fur border, a piece of red flannel cloth is loosely tacked to the furless backside. On top of the flannel, the lower leg of a Euro-American-style linen woman’s pantalette has been attached upside down, exposing its lacework border and embroidered floral motif. The only severe signs of wear on the garments are large brown droplet stains on the outsides of the linen. These stains, located at the same height on each boot, might have been caused by mud splashing onto the sides of the stockings, or dampness that rotted the linen. The wear patterns on the soles and creases are consistent with everyday use of the boots and stockings.

Detail of Eskimo (Inuit) women's boots, showing linen, embroidery, and stains. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission
Detail of Eskimo (Inuit) women’s boots, showing linen, embroidery, stains, and wear patterns. Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of the Penn Museum.

According to the Penn Museum, the boots were a gift from Constantin Dumbrava, a Romanian polar explorer. He made two scientific expeditions to Greenland in 1927 and in 1930 to study meteorology and topography, the latter trip with the intention to gather data for the establishment of transatlantic flight routes.[1] Perhaps it was on one of these trips that he collected ethnographic materials from the Indigenous people with whom he came into contact. A search of the Museum’s collection shows that he also collected caps, trousers, parkas, pouches, and moccasins, among other objects, from Greenland.[2]

These boots and stockings appear to be traditional Greenlandic kamiks, or waterproof boots and liners made from either seal or caribou skin.[3] Seal skin, as seen in this example, is more lightweight than caribou and ideal for year-round wear, especially for wet snow, as it is more waterproof than caribou. A combination of skin stockings, slippers, and boots are worn; the number and type of layers vary with weather, terrain, activity, and cultural group. Two to five layers could be worn, in the following order: inner slipper, outer stocking, boot, and over slipper.[4]

It is clear that kamiks are imbued with cultural significance: the construction and decoration communicate the maker’s lineage, abilities, gender, chosen activity, and even regional relationships. For example, men’s kamiks often have vertical patterns on the shaft, while women’s kamiks have horizontal ones, as seen in this example.[5] Even the production of the boot consists of a lengthy and complex process spanning from the preparation of skins to cutting and sewing a specific set of patterns, using tools personal to the maker.[6] Traditionally, kamiks are sewn together with dried sinew, which swells when wet and therefore acts as a waterproof barrier—here, while the boots seem to be sewn together with sinew, the decorative fabrics are tacked on with cotton thread.

Elizabth Peng and Karen Thomson, Curatorial Assistant at the Penn Museum, examine the lining of these Eskimo (Inuit) boots.
Elizabth Peng and Karen Thomson, Collections Assistant at the Penn Museum, examine the lining of these Eskimo (Inuit) boots. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The making and wearing of kamiks appears to be a common circumpolar tradition, shared by the Inupiat, Inuit, and Inuvialuit peoples. In many of these regions, it seems that the creation of kamiks takes on the role of a generationally transmitted tradition. According to Ulayok Kaviok, an Inuit elder from Nunatsiavut, Canada:

During the skin boot production process, elders pass on oral traditions to young seamstresses who are interested in traditional rituals and sharing systems. The first pair of skin boots sewn by a young sibling is a symbol of her bond with the traditional lifestyle and the importance of sharing Inuit and Inuvialuit culture.[7]

Indeed, in a scene depicted in “Kamik,” an episode of the documentary series Unikkausivut—Sharing Our Stories (1989) detailing kamik making, Ulayok Kaviok’s daughter Elizabeth prepares and softens the sealskin by chewing on it while Ulayok sews the skins together.[8]

Ally Mitchem, Elizabeth Peng, and Bill Wierzbowski in the Penn Museum collections storage area, with multiple examples of adorned Inuit women's boots from Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
Ally Mitchem, Elizabeth Peng, and Bill Wierzbowski (American Section Keeper) in the Penn Museum collections storage area, with multiple examples of adorned Inuit women’s boots from Greenland. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

However, it is important to note that, although there are similarities in the processes of creating kamiks among circumpolar Arctic peoples, the creation of Greenlandic kamiks is very particular to that region. Thus, it should not be surprising that the boots and stockings would combine indigenous Greenlandic and European sensibilities. When Europeans arrived in Greenland, they often brought with them fabrics and other trade goods. These materials came to be incorporated into Inuit dress, especially for festive attire.[9]

These fashion choices by Indigenous women in Greenland—to have combined European embellishments with Native materials, symbols, and construction—suggest the complexity of Native relations with trading posts and with Euro-American settlers. These exchanges can be interpreted not only materially, through the acquisition of non-Native goods and their physical combination with Native garments, but also symbolically, through the adaptation of European fashions to Indigenous ones and vice versa. In fact, it seems that this specific intermixing of forms—the interposition of floral embroidery and lacework on sealskin boots—is unique to Greenland, based on a cross-cultural analysis of other Arctic boots in the Penn Museum collections and in photographs from the Museum Archives.

High-heeled and traditional versions of kamiks. Photo courtesy of Mads Pihl. Photo - Angu Motzfeldt - Visit Greenland.
High-heeled and traditional versions of kamiks. Photo courtesy of Mads Pihl. Photo – Angu Motzfeldt – Visit Greenland.

Today, kamiks are incorporated into the Greenlandic national costume, worn on special occasions and at celebrations such as “Christmas, Easter, Greenland’s National Day, confirmations, and weddings,” according to the Official Tourism Site of Greenland.[10] They consist of long boots made with sealskin at the bottom and floral embroidery sewn in silk thread at the top.[11] Kamiks also became a subject of controversy a few years ago, when a pair of “modernized” kamik boots were presented at London Fashion Week by Danish designer Peter Jensen. Protestors saw the white, leather thigh-high heeled boots with floral embroidery at the top that were clearly inspired by Greenlandic national attire as offensive, and they demanded that the boot be taken off the market.[12] The case for cultural appropriation continues to be debated, and on this, Greenlandic writer and artist Jørgen Chemnitz offers these insights:

Ironically, this ignores the fact that the Greenlandic national costume is actually an imaginatively put together amalgam of new and old materials from all corners of the globe: sealskin, pearls, [and] silks.[13]

Thus it seems that the fur, flannel, and floral embroidery used in the creation of traditional kamiks represent the continuing synthesis, reorganization, and interpretation of differing cultural traditions in Arctic Greenland.

Footnotes:

[1] International News Service. “Greenland Trip to Study Storm Danger for Atlantic Flyers.” The Deseret News 2 July 1927: Section 4, Page 8; “Paris to Montreal Flight Projected: Romanian Scientist and Explorer Will Gather Parliamentary Data.” The Montreal Gazette 28 March 1930: Page 2.
[2] See objects collected by Constantin Dumbrava in the Penn Museum Online Collections Database.
[3] “Our Boots, An Inuit Woman’s Art: Skin Footwear.” All About Shoes. The Bata Shoe Museum, 2008.
[4] “Kamiks of the Inuit: Protective Clothing of Seal Skin and Caribou Skin.” On Canadian Ground: Stories of Footwear in Early Canada. Virtual Museum Canada, 2005.
[5] “Kamiks of the Inuit: Patterns and Styles.” On Canadian Ground: Stories of Footwear in Early Canada. Virtual Museum Canada, 2005.
[6] “Our Boots, An Inuit Woman’s Art: Tools and Preparation.” All About Shoes. The Bata Shoe Museum, 2008.
[7] “Kamiks of the Inuit: Protective Layers of Footwear.” On Canadian Ground: Stories of Footwear in Early Canada. Virtual Museum Canada, 2005.
[8] “Kamik.” Unikkausivut—Sharing Our Stories. Dir. Elise Swerhone. National Film Board of Canada, 1989.
[9] “Traditional Dress.” About Greenland. The Official Tourism Site of Greenland.
[10] Ibid.
[11] “Deconstruction and Date.” About Greenland. The Official Tourism Site of Greenland.
[12] Holmes, Rachel. “Designer Death Threats.” Fashion. The Guardian US Edition. 26 March 2009.
[13] “Deconstruction and Date.” About Greenland. The Official Tourism Site of Greenland.

NOTE: For more information on traditional and modern Greenland Inuit dress, see J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat, and Robert Storrie, eds. 2005. Arctic Clothing of North-America-Alaska, Canada, Greenland. Montreal, Quebec: McGill Queen’s University Press.


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