Inside Out

The Gutskin Parka

Original content by: Thea Hudson

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

The people of native tribes, especially the Inuit people, made use of every part of a hunted animal. The coat pictured is an example of this practice. This coat is made from the intestines and throats of sea lions and fur seals. It was a common practice of the Yup’ik and  Aleut (Unangan) tribes to fashion waterproof clothing using the intestines of sea mammals. The intestines are naturally waterproof as part of their function. These coats were important for staying dry when the weather got wet during hunting. Though waterproof, the coat was not exclusively a rain coat only to be worn when it was raining but was instead a part of normal hunting attire for men. The “gutskin coat”, coined by the Russians as a kamlaika, was utilized during hunting on land and on the water in kayaks.

The Russian fur trade played a large role in the development in this part of the Aluet people’s culture. The fur trade potential of the Pribilof Islands enticed promyshlenniki, and led the relocation of the Aleut people from the Aleutian Islands more north to the Pribilof Islands, the fur seal breeding grounds.  Before their relocation, the Aluet people were mobile hunter-fisherman but upon arrival to the Pribilof Islands they became permanent settlers. This allowed them to focus on the processing of fur seals rather than the fishing and hunting of other creatures.

The intestines of the fur seal go through complex processing before being made into the actual coat. The intestines must be washed, peeled inside and out and scraped with a blunt scraper. The intestines are then inflated and tied at both ends until completely dry. After about two days, the intestines are cut longitudinally and rolled into tight bundles until ready to be made into waterproof clothing. The entire drying, cutting and sewing process of a one sea mammal coat can take an entire month. The dried out intestines are very light and an entire coat can weigh as little as twenty-one to twenty-four grams even though they were made very large in order to fit over a fur parka and their other winter resistant clothing.

Gut skin parkas like this one were routinely collected as souvenirs by whalemen in the Arctic.  Captain David Walker of Groton, Connecticut collected this parka while on his last voyage aboard the George and Mary in 1858.  Captain Walker’s daughters, Mary, Laura, and Julia; each wore the parka to school in Groton.  Mary eventually loaned the parka to the Mariner’s Savings Bank, and eventually gave it to Mystic Seaport. 

Questions for Further Thought

  1. The Russian relocation of the Aluet people had an enormous effect on the Aleut culture. What are other cultures that have been influenced by relocation?
  2. Besides the almost transparent seal intestine, there were also colored accents on the coat. Why do you think these were added to the coat?
  3. The seal intestines' waterproof nature made it useful for other purposes. What else could the seal intestines be used for?