Monday, April 25, 2016

The Arctic Landscape - Alaska

Figure 1 King Salmon Skin Boots, 1992. Bethel, Alaska. (Photo: Ron Wood © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
University of Manitoba researchers Rick Riewe and Jill Oakes first travelled to Alaska in the summer of 1989 on behalf of the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation. Visiting over fifteen different communities, they learned about hunting, fishing, skin preparation and bootmaking. Rick and Jill also developed important relationships with several seamstresses who contributed artifacts to the museum’s permanent collection. One such seamstress, Eliza Chase, created a pair of salmon-skin boots featured in our exhibit, Art and Innovation.

Figure 2 Eliza Chase Preparing Fish. Bethel, Alaska, 1990. (Photo: Jill Oakes © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
Through their archival research, Rick and Jill had learned about waterproof salmon skin boots, and they were eager to collect a pair for the museum. With its long coasts, as well as numerous lakes, marshes and islands, Alaska can have a very wet environmental landscape, particularly in the spring. For centuries, Inupiat and Yup’ik seamstresses resourcefully used natural materials such as fish skins to create warm and waterproof boots. By the end of the 20th century, fish skin boots had become increasingly rare in Alaska, as rubber gradually became more popular. Nevertheless, Rick and Jill remained determined to find a seamstress who still made these boots.

Figure 3 Kuskokwim River, Alaska. 1990. (Photo: Jill Oakes © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
During their time in Alaska, Rick and Jill learned about a seamstress named Eliza Chase who lived at a fishing camp near the Kuskokwim River. They met with Eliza who promised that she would make salmon skin boots for the museum and mail them to Rick and Jill once they returned to Canada. Several months after returning to Manitoba, Rick and Jill still hadn’t heard from Eliza, and they figured that she may have forgotten about their request. Over two years later, they received a box in the mail containing three pairs of fish-skin boots along with a note. It turned out that Eliza had accidentally misplaced Rick and Jill’s business card, but once she found it, she made the boots and sent them right over!

Figure 4 Eliza Chase. Bethel, Alaska, 1990. (Photo: Jill Oakes © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
The boots on display are made of king salmon skin and feature hard sealskin soles. Using a watertight stitch, patches of light salmon skin were carefully sewn onto the shaft in order to stitch-up the dorsal fin holes. The scales are still intact and add dimension, color and texture to the boots. This pair is completely unlined, but the shafts are topped off with textile cuffs and a drawstring. These boots are incredibly lightweight, and seem a bit fragile to the touch. However, pairs such as these often became much stronger and flexible once they became wet. In colder weather, boots such as these were worn with grass or textile liners.

Figure 5 King Salmon Skin Boots, 1992. Bethel, Alaska. ( Photo © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
This pair of boots is an important part of our collection because it provides evidence of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of seamstresses in Alaska who created waterproof footwear using a variety of locally-available materials. In addition, it demonstrates the close relationships that Rick and Jill made with local seamstresses during their field research. The Bata Shoe Museum’s circumpolar collection would not have existed without the kindness, generosity and expertise of the makers who donated their footwear.  

Figure 6 King Salmon Skin Boots, 1992. Bethel, Alaska. (Photo © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)

Listen to an audio recording of how we collected these boots and more by clicking here.


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