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A jacket sewn of tanned sea fishskin as protective wear for an Aleut child. Jackets and waterproof capes made of fishskin or intestines of sea mammals were worn over clothes made of seal or reindeer leather. The jackets provided protection against wind and water, being a necessary element during seal hunting trips.

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A fishskin kid’s jacket, protective piece of wear worn by the Aleut people, ethnographic group: Aleut people, Russia, Commander Islands.

A jacket sewn of tanned sea fishskin as protective wear for an Aleut child. Jackets and waterproof capes made of fishskin or intestines of sea mammals were worn over clothes made of seal or reindeer leather. The jackets provided protection against wind and water, being a necessary element during seal hunting trips. The fishskin was properly dissected and fattened and then sewn together by means of tendons and tongs. This kind of wear, commonly referred to as anoraks or parkas, was marked by its high durability and longevity, which is evidenced by the fact that the jacket retains its properties even 120 years after it was made.
The item is an example of the unique craftsmanship of the Aleut people, native inhabitants of the Aleut Islands (today's USA) and the Commander Islands (4 islands, including the Bering Island and the Copper Island, belonging to Russia). Aleut people, closely related to the Inuit people (Eskimos), were committed to hunting for seals, a skill which they mastered to the point of perfection. However, their way of life based exclusively on hunting was endangered as early as the 19th century, especially in the Russian territories. Additionally, the culture became significantly disintegrated; imported materials, goods and... alcohol appeared more and more frequently.
It was observed by Benedykt Dybowski, a famous Polish zoologist, a many-years exile in Siberia following the January Uprising and at the same time an eminent researcher of Zabaykalsky Krai (formerly Dauria), Kamchatka and the Commander Islands. In the early 1880s, employed by the Russian government as a district physician for Kamchatka and the Commander Islands, he researched the Aleut people. He helped them in their everyday life by providing them with medical aid while at the same time trying to improve their quality of life. To that end, he sent reindeer to the Commander Islands, whose breeding was supposed to improve the Aleut people's lives. Dybowski noticed then that the Aleut people's unique culture was vanishing. To retain for posterity what was left of this culture, he decided to gather a representative collection of items, which the people used in their daily lives. These included tools, arms, elements of costumes as well as numerous models made by the Aleut people and commissioned by Dybowski, already at that time (!) planning to use them to develop a museum exhibition.
Just as many other items gathered by Dybowski, before becoming a museum exhibit, the unique fishskin jacket belonged to an Aleut child more than 120 years ago. What makes it valuable is not only that it is an example of forgotten material culture but also the fact that with other exhibits from the Commander Islands it is a trace of a community that once lived there. Today, 100 years after Dybowski's mission, the Copper Island is deserted, and the population of the Bering Island is composed of Aleut descendants and immigrants.

Elaborated by the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, © all rights reserved

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