What in the heck am I talking about you ask? Why seal intestines, of course! That question posed a huge conundrum for me after the Museum successfully bid on a gut skin parka at Zemanek-Münster, a tribal arts auction company in Würzburg, Germany. Although, if I am being honest I had to worry about walrus, bowhead and beluga whale, and caribou intestines as well. The questions of exactly whose entrails made up the parka, its country of origin and its age had to be answered before we could import the object into the United States. It took three months and in the process its provenance shifted from one side of the North American continent to the other.
It all started in October while I researched the native populations of King Island, Kotzebue Sound and Huntingdon Island for the Museum’s Indigenous People’s Day on November 9th. I was primarily interested in how native Alaskans used the umiak, kayak and baidarka* to hunt which led me to study their tools and clothing as well. Using internet sites like the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology Collections (https://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/anth/) and the Alaska Native Collections of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center (https://alaska.si.edu/index.asp) taught me a lot about the objects in our collection as well as native terminology. One of the words I learned was “kamleika” which is actually the word Russian traders used for the gut parkas worn by Arctic peoples.