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Five facts about the shaman’s parka

  • Dec 03, 2015
  • 636 words
  • 3 minutes
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Said to be the most unique garment created in the Canadian Arctic, an Inuit shaman’s parka is making headlines again, more than 100 years after it was brought to the American Museum of Natural History.

A sweater bearing the parka’s design was recently spotted for sale by U.K fashion label, KTZ, sparking outrage from the shaman’s descendants who were not asked for consent and accused the label of cultural appropriation. Despite the recent events, the parka and its story are now being told around the world.

Here are five interesting things about the original shaman’s parka.

1. Unlike other shaman parkas in the Canadian Arctic, this one depicts a vision. There are many theories as to what that vision is. German-American anthropologist Franz Boas first wrote about the parka in 1907 in part two of his book, The Eskimo of Baffin Land and Hudson Bay. He recounts the tale retold to him by whaling ship captain, George Comer, who collected artifacts on behalf of the natural history museum and who had purchased the parka from the shaman’s son, Ava:

One of the angakut [shaman] of the Iglulik told the following story about his initiation. One day when he was caribou-hunting near the peninsula Amitoq, he killed three caribou. On the following day he saw four large bucks, one of which was very fat. He struck it with an arrow, and the caribou began to run to and fro. Its antlers and its skin dropped off, its head became smaller, and soon it assumed the form of a woman with finely made clothes. Soon she fell down, giving birth to a boy, and then she died. The other caribou had turned into men, who told him to cover the woman and the child with moss, so that nobody should ever find them. They told him to straighten out her body; but he was only able to move one arm, because she was exceedingly heavy. After he had covered up the bodies, the men told him to return to his people and to tell them what had happened, and to have his clothing made in the same way as that of the woman.

2. In his book, Boas writes that the shaman, named Qingailisaq, told Comer that it his parka is identical to the one worn by the caribou woman, except for the representation of her child (possibly the little brown figure on the front), which was added. The shaman also explained some of the meanings behind the other symbols on the parka. The hands are intended to ward off evil spirits, while the animal figures on the shoulders represented “children of the earth.” The parka includes a cap and mittens, which the shaman said, are also the same as the one the caribou woman wore.

3. The shaman’s son, Ava, told a different story 20 years after Comer heard his father’s tale to explorer and anthropologist, Knud Rasmussen. Ava said the parka was designed in the style of the Ijiraat, shape-shifting mountain spirits that, in this case, took the form of caribou. The hands on the front, he said, represented the Ijiraat attacking his father.

4. The American Museum of Natural History acquired the parka in 1902, however it remained in a box in the storeroom until Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad, a research collaborator with the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Centre, rediscovered it in 1978.

5. In 1983, there were five copies of this parka commissioned in Iglooklik and sent to Laval University in Quebec, the Canadian Museum of History in Hull, Que., the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, the British Museum in London, and a private collector who donated it to the Heard Museum of American Indian Art and History in Phoenix, Ariz.


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