5. The Parka

Parka: you know, the jacket with the hood, probably something most of us, living in Canada, at some time in our life, have likely worn. Of course this would be a contemporary reading of what the parka has become, as it’s roots go far back in the Canadian story. Human migration through the northern part of Canada has gone on for more than 4000 years, and the early relatives of the current day Inuits arrived almost 1000 years ago.

Man’s outer parka;
Copper Inuit;
collected by:
Diamond Jenness,
Coppermine River,
Northwest Territories,
caribou skin, sinew;
120 cm. long, 68 cm. wide.
Royal Ontario Museum

The word parka was first found in use in the 16th Century, and translates, from the Aleutian language, as “skin” and the coats origin comes from long before the translation. The men’s parka, like the previously mentioned amautik (women’s parka) (150 PLUS / PAGE 3 / THE INUIT AMAUTIK), was designed for survival, and stands significantly as an integral part of the Inuit material culture. The men’s parka was cut differently than the female’s, as it served a different purpose. The male was the hunter, and his coat was cut closer to the body for easier mobility out on the ice and snow. It was made up of fur: caribou for winter and often seal for spring and summer.

Parka and trousers
Eastern Arctic
Inuit: Nunatsiarmiut
About 1897, 19th century
Seal fur, canvas, sinew
49 x 119 cm
© McCord Museum

The fur for the men’s coats was cut in larger pieces than the women’s, which cut down on the number of seams it needed, as seams allowed the wind to enter. The coat was made up of 2 layers, an inner one, with the fur against the body, and an outer one, with the fur facing the elements. The layering and the cut both played an imporant role in the maintenance of body temperature against the arctic extremes. The original parka pulled on over the head and had an attached hood. It was thigh length at the front, and at the back had a long, rectangular, tail-like panel, “akug“, which has shortened, over time, to being just slightly longer than the front. As with almost all Inuit and First Nations clothing, there was a spiritual as well as a physical presence that connected the wearer and the animal(s) the coat was made up of.

“It is, however, often difficult to talk freely about these animal relationships, for we no longer are in harmony with nature and therefore can no longer talk as we could if we and nature were in total unity. Inseperable and one: as humans and as animal. Commutable, permutable, reciprocal. A total give and take. …”*

Gutskin parka
Western Arctic
Inuit: Yu’pik
1910-1915, 20th century
Feathers (crested auklet), sheath (crested auklet), sinew, intestines (seal), seal fur, cotton thread
96 x 109 cm
© McCord Museum

Today’s Inuit, in much diminished numbers, still make, wear, and know the parka much as they always have. For most of us, however, as the coat has made it’s way from the Inuit makers and wearers to mass manufacturers in Canada and abroad and sold in urban centres, it’s spiritual meaning has long been lost. The physical form has gone from 2 separate hand-wrought layers of fur to 2 fabric layers, an outer shell and an inner lining, both made up of almost anything, from low-tech wools and cottons to the most hi-tech, up-to-the-minute, man-made fibres, machine sewn together, and stuffed with some form of filling, from the finest of bird’s down to the cheapest of polyester fiber-filling. It has been split down the front, and zips and buttons have been added for easier on and off, and the traditional fit and shape altered, anywhere from short and narrow to long and full, to fit whatever the latest fashion dictates, and prices range from designer to discount, as sales permit.

While in it’s original form, it is still an icon of the Inuit, and in it’s newer and broader sense of function and/or fashion, it has become a world-wide recognized icon of Canada…can you say Canada Goose? There are so many variations and permutations that even the dictionaries can’t quite keep up, crossing the anorak and the parka and several other coats into the mix…although I am happy to say they all site “of Inuit origin”.

*quote from THE INUIT AMAUTIK: I Like My Hood To Be Full
McCord Museum Show and Publication
Bernadette Driscoll
Associate Curator
Inuit Art
page 14
from Diamond Jenness

and just in case you don’t know Mr. Jenness…

“Diamond Jenness, anthropologist, archaeologist, linguist, arctic scholar (born 10 February 1886 in Wellington, New Zealand; died 29 November 1969 in Wakefield, QC).

Over a career that spanned five decades, Diamond Jenness became one of Canada’s most distinguished anthropologists. He gained national and international acclaim for his meticulous descriptions of early post-contact Inuinnait (Copper Inuit) life in the Coronation Gulf region — research he began as a member of the 1913–1918 Canadian Arctic Expedition. In addition, Jenness was renowned for his archaeological discoveries of the ancient Dorset and Old Bering Sea cultures. He published over 100 books and articles on Inuit-state relations, ethnology, linguistics, archaeology and anthropology, including The People of the Twilight. Taken together, his publications are considered one of the most comprehensive descriptions of an Inuit group ever written.”

Diamond Jenness (left) and W.L. McKinley, magnetician and meteorologist, on board the Karluk, 1913.