Clothing from East Greenland Introduction

Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
Clothing from East Greenland
Cunera Buijs
In East Greenland the severe climatic conditions make heavy demands on clothing worn there.
Clothes have to protect the inhabitants of the region against extreme cold, wind, and damp. For
centuries the inhabitants of East Greenland, the Inuit, were only able to use materials provided by
their hunting, including animal skins, sinews, and even animal intestines. The Inuit turned these
materials into clothing superbly adapted to the polar climate.
The Europeans arriving in East Greenland from the end of the nineteenth century on, brought
new materials with them. This resulted in modifications to traditional clothing, and even in its
partial disappearance. Yet traditional garments have never completely vanished from the scene.
In a sense they satisfy climatic demands more effectively than European clothing, and the Inuit
also wear traditional clothes as a expression of their cultural identity.
The National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden houses a collection of garments worn by the Inuit
of East Greenland, the oldest among them dating from the time of the first contacts with
outsiders, and including examples dating from right up to the present day. This collection permits
us to see clearly how Inuit clothing in East Greenland has changed over time. Both inside the
museum, and in the field, research is carried out on the causes and consequences of these
changes for Inuit society.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
Table of contents:
Greenland and Greenlanders
The Inuit
East Greenland
The Museum collection
The principles of polar clothing
Air-capture principle
Materials and their processing
Available materials
Seal skin
Bird skin
The manufacture of clothing
Sewing kits and sewing
The woman’s knife
Sinew thread, nylon and dental floss
Design of garments
Trimming of the edges
The traditional clothing of East Greenland
Traditional clothing
Man’s coat: anorak
Under garments: naatsit
Footwear: kamiit
Other elements of clothing and appearance
Cap: nasaq
Snow goggles : inniikkilaq
Woman’s coat: amaat
Under trousers and over trousers
Hairstyle and finery
Special clothing
Kayak anoraks
Kayak anorak made from intestines: ikkiaq
Leather kayak anorak:qaajarsiit
Kayak mittens: maattaalit
Whaling suit: qartiipasalik
The development of polar clothing
The function of clothes
Clothing as expression of identity
Festive clothing
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
1. Greenland and Greenlanders
Greenland, the world’s largest island, is covered to a depth of three kilometres with a thick ice
cap. The region is inhospitable, vast and empty. The winter lasts six to eight months. The
temperature sometimes drops as low as minus fifty degrees Celsius, and in mid-winter the sun
never appears above the horizon. During the brief summers the sun never sets at night. Ice and
snowmelt, and the temperature can reach as high as ten degrees Celsius. Habitation is only
possible along the forty thousand kilometres of coastline. Here live some 57, 000 Greenlanders,
or Kalaallit, as they call themselves.
The Inuit
The best-known inhabitants of the entire arctic region - including Greenland - are the Inuit.1
There are a large number of regional subcultures within the enormous Inuit distribution area.
These peoples have adapted to their specific, local natural environments, and this adaptation has
given rise to differences in the means of subsistence, language, and material culture.
Nonetheless, language is a major linking factor between the various groups. From Greenland to
Siberia, the Inuit speak variants of one language - Inuktitut '. There are no great mutual
differences between the regional dialects of neighbouring groups, but the further the distance
between groups, the greater the differences. Even though the Inuit of East Greenland and the
Inuit of Siberia share a language, they are barely able (if at all) to comprehend each others’
speech. In contrast the Inuit of West Greenland and those of Alaska have less difficulty in
understanding one another.
East Greenland
East Greenlanders live mainly by hunting seal, great numbers of which are found along the coast.
The meat of the seals is eaten, while their skins are either sold to the trading company or used
for making clothes. For hunting in the summer, the Inuit formerly used harpoons and kayaks.
These days they hunt with rifles in motorboats.
Before the arrival of the Europeans the Greenlanders lived a semi-nomadic existence. During the
short summer they fished for salmon, and lived in skin tents close to the water. In the winter they
lived spread out along the fjords in small groups, inhabiting stone houses half buried in the
ground, and often built into the slope of a low hill.
A winter house of this kind was constructed to keep in the heat. The entrance consisted of a low
corridor, to enable the warm air (which rises because it is lighter than cold air) to be retained in
the living area. More than one family lived in a house, each family having its own blubber lamp
for warmth and lighting. Food was also cooked over this lamp, and a rack hung above it was
used for drying clothes.
The advent of the Europeans - as late as 1884 in East Greenland - had a great influence on the
Inuit way of life. Greenlanders began to sell their surplus fish to the Danish Royal Greenland
Trading Company, in exchange for useful objects made of iron, and for firearms, textiles, and
European foodstuffs. Greenlanders gradually began to settle in permanent villages and towns,
where education, health care, shops and paid work were freely available. Today, most
Greenlanders live in modern wooden houses or in flats. In 1979 Greenland was granted selfgovernment, and partial independence.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
2. The Museum collection
The oldest items of clothing from East Greenland held in the collection of the National Museum
of Ethnology (Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, the RMV) date from the end of the nineteenth
century. In that period East Greenland had only just been ‘discovered’ by the Danes, and the
garments collected at that time had therefore not yet been influenced by contact with Europeans.
These items of clothing, together with other objects of ethnographic interest, found their way into
the RMV via the National Museum of Copenhagen.
In the 1930s the well-known Dutch biologist and Nobel Prize winner, Niko Tinbergen, 2 lived for
some time in East Greenland, in connection with his research. During his field work, he studied
the behaviour of several bird species, and also collected objects of ethnographic interest, the
majority of which are now to be found in the Museon in The Hague. However, Tinbergen
donated an East Greenland kayak and two kayak anoraks to the RMV.
The great breakthrough for the collection came in 1970, when Gerti Nooter 3 was appointed the
RMV’s curator for North America and the arctic region. Even before Nooter’s arrival at the RMV,
he conducted research and undertook long field-work expeditions. He created an unusually close
relationship with a small village on the east coast of Greenland, called Tiniteqilaaq. Between 1970
and 1990 Gerti Nooter made several return trips to Tiniteqilaaq, for extended visits. During this field
work Nooter assembled various collections of objects from this region, consisting of implements,
hunting equipment, means of transport, household goods, art, and clothing. When purchasing
objects, he concentrated on items still in use at that time. However, in the course of time what had
been ‘contemporary’ objects at the time of purchase, became ‘dated’ and ‘historic’ for the museum
It is therefore important that Nooter’s successor, Cunera Buijs, still continues to carry out research
on East Greenland from her RMV base, stimulated by a comparable interest. Objects dating from
the present day thus supplement the older collections. Thus changes in clothing can be traced,
confirmed and demonstrated on the basis of the museum collection.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
3. The principles of polar clothing
Just as everywhere else in the world, clothing in Greenland must have a clearly practical aim - in this
case, to protect its wearer from the climatic conditions in his or her home environment. For
Greenlanders, especially, this means that their clothing has to protect them against extreme cold,
damp, and wind. A good knowledge and experience of the qualities and usefulness of the available
materials is clearly of vital importance.
In every case, polar clothing must fulfill three special technical demands:
• it must provide insulation against the cold, and retain body heat;
• it must exclude external sources of moisture, and permit perspiration to evaporate;
• it must protect the wearer against the wind.
Air-capture principle
In polar clothing, the ‘air-capture principle’ (the retention of warm air) is extremely important. The
air inside the clothing is warmed by the wearer’s own body. It is essential to prevent this warm air
from escaping.
The clothing worn immediately next to the bare skin is always loose. Fur garments are worn with the
hair inside. The space between the body and the clothing is filled with an insulating layer of air, which
also ensures evaporation of the body’s humidity. Over these undergarments there is a second layer
of fur clothing, the outer garments. This time the fur is worn outside. Between the two layers of fur
there remains a small, insulating space, also filled with air.
The design of the clothing also has a role to play in insulating the wearer’s body. Thus a closed jacket
without a front fastening retains heat better than an open jacket. A hood attached to a jacket has
much the same effect.4 The length and shape of the garments also contributesto their effectiveness;
long coats retain the warm air as in a tube. 5
The way in which the problem of dampness is tackled is just as important as insulation against the
cold. 6 We can distinguish between two sources of wet coming from outside (snow, ice, water) and
that produced within, in the form of perspiration.
The Inuit of Greenland live with snow, ice and water virtually the whole year round, and in many
situations. In order to avoid being troubled by these, the Inuit have developed suitable clothing.
Especially when they are in direct contact with water, as when hunting, or on sledge journeys, the
easy, rapid removal of humidity is essential for keeping the body dry. The Inuit’s clothing is therefore
constructed not only to retain warm air, but also to permit ventilation. When the wearer becomes
overheated, pushing back the jacket hood allows the warm air to escape through the neck.
Apart from perspiration, the problem of dampness also derives from the constant, if usually invisible
humidity produced by the skin. This second kind of bodily humidity becomes visible in temperatures
of minus thirty to forty degrees Celsius. At these temperatures a small cloud of steam forms round
the palm of the hand, one of the warmest parts of the body. In extremely severe temperatures, such
as minus fifty degrees Celsius, this steam actually freezes.
Fierce wind, sometimes combined with cold and other climatic features, can have the result of
increasing the degree of cold experienced. While the actual temperature might, by itself, still be
bearable, the wind ensures that the effect of the temperature is more severe and unpleasant. This
is called the wind-chill factor, and necessitates protection against the wind. In addition to the use of
wind-proof materials, such as fur and leather, the design used for clothing is also of great
importance. Thus a closed coat, without a front fastening, is perfectly windproof.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
4. Materials and their processing
Before contact with Europeans, the traditional style of clothing among polar peoples was closely
linked with local natural conditions,and with the economic structure of the society. The circumstances
of everyday life determined, for example, the choice of material from which the clothing was made.
Available materials
Until well into the twentieth century in Greenland, practically the only available materials for clothing
were animals’ skins and intestines. The materials most often used were fur and leather. The hairs
of the fur are hollow and contain air, which has an insulating effect. Fur without pigment, as in the
case of the polar bear’s white pelt, contains more air than other kinds of furs, because the empty
space in the hairs (normally containing pigment) is also filled with air. For this reason clothing made
of polar-bear fur is the warmest. It is not only the structure of the fur which makes it so warm. The
length of the hairs and thickness of the pelt also play their part. Seal fur is shorthaired and less
warm, but conversely it is waterproof, and it is also easier to remove the hairs for making leather.
The main aim in processing skins is to clean them and remove all traces of flesh, so that they do not
rot. The skin consists of two layers: the epidermis or top skin, beneath which is the dermis, also know
as corium, or leather skin. Below this is a layer of fat. In the bottom-most layer of the epidermis are
the cells that produce pigment. During the processing of the skins, the layer of fat and the dermis
are usually removed. The hair is also usually removed when skins are made into leather.
Seal skins are usually processed by the women of East Greenland. The men go hunting for seal in
both the summer and winter. The women and children, who remain behind in the village, can see
from a distance whether or not the returning men have caught any seals. When they have, it is a
happy day for the families since it means that there will be food for everyone.
A good wife will hurry to her husband’s landing place, and help him to drag the seal he has caught
to their house. Then she begins to flense the seal, i.e., to cut it up and skin it, and to process the
sealskin. She lays the skin on her scraping board, the qapiarpik. She scrapes the fat away from the
back of the skin with hard strokes of her woman’s knife.
The subsequent stages in processing seal skins involve heavy and time-consuming work, consisting
of several rinsings in soapsuds (in earlier times, urine was used). Women then have to stretch the
skins and dry them, several times. Stretching the skin makes it supple. Inuit women formerly chewed
the skins to make them supple, but in East Greenland this is no longer done today. It is only the very
worn teeth of some of the older women that reminds us of this former custom. When the seal skins
have been processed the hunter or his wife sells them to the trading company. The couple keep only
a few of the skins for their own use, for making mittens, slippers, boots and bags.
There are several different kinds of seal, each producing a different kind of fur and leather. The
Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus) for example, is a large seal with thick, tough skin that is
eminently suitable for making boot soles. The Inuit have a great number of different names for the
kinds and qualities of skin, distinguishing both species and ages of the seals.
Bird skin
East Greenlanders, like most of the peoples in the Arctic region, use bird skins for making under
garments. The processing of bird skins repeats, to a large extent, the method of working seal skins.
The main treatments include washing the skins, scraping them free of fat and remnants of flesh,
tanning with soapsuds (with urine, in former times), and drying them. Some thirty skins from adult
eider ducks were needed to make woman’s coat, while a man’s coat needed approximately twentyfive skins. A child’s coat was made from eight to fourteen skins, depending on the child’s age.
The idea of garments made from animal intestines seems even stranger than clothing made of bird
skins. Yet it is possible to treat the intestines from sea and land mammals in such a way that clothes
can be made from them. A coat made from gut skin formed a major element in clothing for use in
the kayak, since the material is waterproof. For this purpose the Inuit of Greenland used the
intestines various species of seal.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
The preparation of the intestines involved considerable work. First the women had to squeeze the
remains of faeces out of the guts. Next, they scraped the outsides clean. They then soaked the
intestines in water to clean the insides thoroughly. After allowing the water to run out, the women
blew up the intestines and spread them out on the ground to dry. Blowing up the intestines
demanded a strenuous effort, given that the large intestine of a walrus, for example, could measure
twenty-three metres.
The name for ‘bead’ in the speech of Greenland is Saparngaq 7, a word deriving from an old Inuit
word. Beads of various kinds and sizes were worked into Greenland clothing. Whereas fur, leather,
feathers, sinew, intestines and so on, were - and are - functional by their very nature for clothing,
beads have usually had only one purpose, ornamentation for people and/or their clothing.
In Greenland the use of beads reached its temporary peak in the large and very colourful collar,
(shoulder covering, yoke) worn as part of the kalaallisut, the ‘Sunday suit’, which today constitutes
the national women’s costume in Greenland. This collar, which now reaches beyond the wearer’s
elbows, originated in the modest decoration characterising women’s everyday clothing in an earlier
era. The fact that these collars are today so large and colourful, while in earlier times they were
considerably smaller, narrower and more sober, is closely connected with the availability of beads.
Until long after the advent of the first Europeans at the end of the eighteenth century, Greenlanders
made their own beads from materials obtainable from their own surroundings, for example bone,
ivory, wood, or stone. 8 Bone and ivory beads were the most common. The Inuit also sawed and
filed small angular beads from the vertebrae of the ammassak,9 a small fish caught off the coast of
East Greenland. These were threaded on narrow leather thongs to wear as a necklace. 10 Another
common kind of bead was made from the teeth 11 of game animals, small and large, such as
rodents, seals, narwhals, polar bears, or even some kinds of whale. 12
All these beads could be used for decorating clothing. Beads were - and still are - often sewn to
places where mosaics of fur or leather mosaics were formerly applied. The beads are arranged in
geometric patterns composed of different colours. Beads were also formerly made into women’s
jewellery, such as earrings, and into men’s chest amulets.
It was only after the arrival of the first Europeans, and the Danish colonisation of Greenland, that
the Inuit began to obtain a larger assortment of beads. The traditional materials continued in use,
but beads made of glass and artificial materials also made their appearance. 13 In the beginning the
whalers, and later the Danish Royal Greenland Trading Company 14, also played a significant role in
the distribution of these beads.
Although these imported beads have never been cheap to buy, slowly but surely they have come to
constitute a considerable part of the most colourful costume that women, throughout Greenland,
wear on festive occasions - the national dress.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
5. The manufacture of clothing
The making of clothing was once a task traditionally performed by women in East Greenland.
Besides knowledge of the materials used and the methods of processing them, transmitted from
generation to generation, the women also used a number of implements that made it possible to
produce garments from these materials.
Sewing kits and sewing
The sewing kit of the East Greenland Inuit consisted of the sakkeq or ulu - the traditional woman’s
knife - and the needle and awl, thimble and needlecase. The traditional sewing kit also contained
sinews for making thread, and small pieces of fur for carrying out repairs. The implements were
stored in a bag made of fur or leather, or in a pouch of fur or bird skin.
Generally speaking, this kind of sewing kit is found throughout the entire circumpolarregion, and not
just in Greenland.
The woman’s knife
The sakkeq or ulu is the most characteristic article found among the Inuit woman’s sewing
implements. The knife was developed centuries ago from the blades of iron saws, obtained from
Dutch whalers. Women’s knives were originally made of bone and stone.
Until the beginning of trade with European whalers and colonists, women in Greenland used only
needles made of bone or ivory. After the arrival of Europeans, iron needles were introduced. The
women of East Greenland usually stuck them into a triangular piece of leather.
Sinew thread, nylon, and dental floss
For thread, the Inuit originally used only sinews, taken from narwhal or seals, for example. This
sinew thread has a very special characteristic: it swells when wet. Garments sewn with sinew thread
are waterproof along the seams, since when the thread swells with water it fills up the holes left by
the sewing needle. Thus for a long time women preferred to use sinew thread, rather than nylon.
Ultimately, however, nylon sewing thread and yarn replaced sinew thread. A major cause of this
was its ease of use and the ready availability of artificial yarns, in comparison with the difficulty of
preparing sinew thread and working with it. Nowadays, sewing with dental floss is also popular in
East Greenland, since this material is very strong, sticky, and pleasant to use. It is used especially
for sewing seal-skin boots.
Many different stitches were used in sewing clothes. For sewing garments that had to be waterproof,
the Inuit ensured that the needle did not penetrate completely through both layers of leather. The
second layer was only sewn to the surface of the first, the needle in other words not passing all the
way through both layers. This ensured that the outermost layer remained intact, without holes and
therefore waterproof. This method of sewing was repeated from the other side. The needle was
never pushed through both layers at the same time.
Function and aesthetics were often combined, something that can be seen, for example, in the
clothing of East Greenland, in which the seams are trimmed with a strip of leather of a different
colour. The effect is very decorative, and at the same time the seams are rendered more wind-proof,
stronger and more durable. Good seamstresses use small stitches in their sewing, which prevent
gaps in the seam, thus making the garment more wind-proof.
Designs of garments
Closed coats, which have to be pulled on over the wearer’s head, offer better protection against the
cold, at least in principle. A good adaptation for protection against cold is also found in hoods and
mittens permanently attached to the coat, and trousers with footwear sewn to the bottom of the
legs, as found in Siberia.
Moreover, it is of course practicable to profit as much as possible from the original shape of an
animal skin, for covering the human body. The simplest way of doing this is to make an opening in
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
the middle of the skin for the wearer’s head, producing a poncho effect. It is also possible to use one
whole skin for the front part of a garment, and a second for the back.
Generally speaking, garments are put together according to the nap - the direction in which the fur
hairs run. The hairs usually face downwards so that rain and snow slide downwards on a fur coat or
an anorak, and are thus easily got rid of.
In some cases it may be useful to deviate from this principle, as in the case of the Inuit woman’s
amaat. 16 The inside of the front of the amaat is often made in such a way that the fur hairs do not
point downwards, in the usual way, but upwards. This ensures that the weight of the child’s body
inside the amaat does not cause the amaat to ride up. Conversely, inside the hood, and on the broad
back panel, the nap of the fur points downwards, which makes it softer for the child, and less
Trimming of the edges
Often an edge or seam is trimmed with fur, but also with other materials such as cotton and wool.
Edgings of this kind are added to prevent the border from curling up, but also as decoration.
Fur garments often have a fur edging on the cuffs, which can be turned outwards. In order to display
the beautiful fur, the edging is set back to front into the sleeve (i.e., with the hair inside). When the
sleeve is turned back, the hair side shows. The colour giving the greatest contrast provides the most
decorative effect.
The use of animal skin, however, is not only determined by practical considerations. It also has a
symbolic meaning. Animal skins protect the human wearer’s body just as they protect their original
animal owners. The skin from an animal’s head is often used for the cap; the pelt from the animal’s
back is turned into the back panel and the shoulders of a garment; the trousers are made from the
pelt on the animal’s hind quarters’ and the tough skin taken from animals’ legs is used for making
boots. These characteristicsof clothing can be regarded as symbolising the link between humans and
animals. Many of the peoples inhabiting the Arctic region use animal symbolism in their clothing. The
tails on the Inuit’s coat are a good example of this.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
6. The traditional clothing of East Greenland
Generally speaking, the people of each community and region make their clothing with one or more
specific aims in mind. They use the materials available in their local environment, and we may thus
assume that the longer the isolation of a particular community, the greater the individuality shown
by the clothing. This has certainly been true of the Inuit of West and East Greenland, prior to those
times in the past when they came increasingly to be confronted by Europeans. In West Greenland
this occurred as early as the second half of the eighteenth century. 17 East Greenland, however,
remained isolated until the end of the nineteenth century, and thus free of outside influences.
The end of East Greenland’s isolation came in 1884, when a Danish expedition led by Lieutenant
Gustav Holm 18 explored the east coast of Greenland. From that moment on a great many new
ideas, materials and customs began, slowly but surely, to penetrate Greenland society. Where
clothing is concerned, changes began to become clearly visible.
Traditional clothing
The arrival of Holm’s expedition, certainly, constituted a kind of beginning for changes in East
Greenland society. Nevertheless, there was still no abrupt or radical break with the past. Change
came only gradually to affect the garments worn by the Inuit in the various settlements Holm visited
along the coast of Greenland. Until far into the twentieth century, researchers and visitors in East
Greenland could see the Inuit making, wearing and using traditional clothing they had developed over
the previous centuries to suit their living conditions.
Reports written by Holm and other researchers provide us with an image of traditional garments and
bodily ornamentation among the men, women and children of East Greenland, such as that given
When Holm arrived in Ammassalik 19 in 1884, he found that the men of the settlement usually wore
the following clothes.
Men’s coat: anorak
For most of the year and in most circumstances, the men wore the anorak as a coat and outer
garment. This is a closed coat pulled on over the wearer’s head. Under this outer garment a second
anorak - the inner anorak - was worn directly in contact with the upper part of the body.
The anorak was cut wide over the chest so that the front and back panels provided ample room, in
very cold weather, for the arms to be drawn inside and warmed next to the wearer’s skin. The width
also ensured maximum freedom of movement for throwing the harpoon during the hunt.
The outer anoraks were often made from seal fur or polar-bear fur, and were usually worn with the
fur side turned outwards. An inner anorak could also be made of fox fur, or birds’ feathers, with a
thin anorak of seal skin or intestine worn over it. In periods of extreme cold an extra anorak could
also be worn over the outer anorak, with the fur turned outwards. The edges were trimmed with
strips of fur taken from polar bear, dog, or young seal. The seams were often finished decoratively
with seal leather.
Waterproof anoraks made from intestines were worn in bad weather. Men in their kayaks might also
wear extra, waterproof kayak anoraks made of leather, often decorated with ivory beads.
Under garments: naatsit
The only undergarment the Inuit wore next to the bare skin, was the pair of short breeches, the
naatsit. These breeches were made of seal fur with the fur turned outside. This item of clothing was
often decorated with small pieces of fur in different colours.
When weather conditions permitted, the naatsit was often the only garment worn, both in the home
and outside in the settlement. There does seem to have been a taboo against walking around
outside the home only in shorts. As soon as the Inuit men left their own settlement, they put on a
pair of long trousers made of seal or polar-bear fur.
Footwear: kamiit
Men’s footwear mostly consisted of the kamiit, boots made from seal fur. These kamiit usually came
above the wearer’s knee, and consisted of an inner boot or sock with the hair turned inwards, and
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
an outer boot made of leather. The outer boot was rendered waterproof with seal oil. In the winter
men wore similar boots, but - as in the case of the anorak - with the fur turned outwards. There
were overshoes made polar-bear fur.
In summer, men also wore short boots made from softened seal leather, decorated with a beautiful
mosaic made with differently coloured strips of leather. Like present-day men’s boots for festive
wear, these came halfway up the shin.
Other elements of clothing and appearance
The cap: nasaq
In summer, men often wore caps made of arctic-fox fur, with the animal’s long tail hanging down
Snow goggles: inniikkilaq
Even in summer, eye shades were worn to protect the wearer against strong reflections and sunlight.
In the winter a pair of snow goggles made from wood were more effective for circumstances in
which hunters had to cope with sun reflected on ice. A pair of snow goggles curved around the eyes,
and had small slits for the hunter to see through.
Men wore their hair long, keeping it in place with a hairband made of beads or, more commonly,
made from the vertebrae of a kind of small fish, the angmassat (Capelin).
A man wore a chain or strap made of leather on his chest, to which amulets were attached. Amulets
were also fixed to an arm band worn round the upper arm. Amulets were made from small pieces
of driftwood, and often took a human form. They were worn to ensure a long life, or success in the
Woman’s coat: amaat
In former times, the Inuit woman wore an amaat, a coat made of seal leather or fur, with an extrabroad back panel, and an enlarged hood in which a baby could be carried. A long cord was fixed to
the front of the amaat, and this was drawn tight under the baby, round to the front again, before
being fastened. This served to keep the child safely in place.
The amaat derives its name from the verb ‘to carry’ in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. An amaat
is both a woman’s coat, a baby sling, and a cradle, all at the same time. Just as often occurs among
the Inuit, several functions are united in one object. The amaat not only kept the mother warm but
- more important still - the baby as well.
The amaat was a symbol of fertility, and was worn by women with young children. A child was
carried in the amaat until it was one or even two years old. If a subsequent baby was born before
the first was two years old, the older brother or sister simply had to give up its place inside the
amaat. Women without children wore a coat very similar to the man’s anorak, including a tight hood
with a small point.20
The amaat often had a little tail at the front and back, somewhat longer than the one found on the
man’s coat. The amaat is also made from two layers of fur or leather, the inner amaat with the fur
inside,21 and the outer amaat with the fur outside. Sometimes the outer amaat consists of softened,
tanned seal skin. Just like the anorak, the man’s amaat was decorated with strips of white leather
along the seams.
The inside of the front panel was often constructed in such a way that the fur hairs pointed upwards,
rather than downwards as they usually did. This prevented the amaat from riding up the mother’s
body with the weight of the child carried in the hood. Inside the hood, and in the wide back panel,
the nap of the fur was directed downwards so that it was softer and more comfortable for the child,
and did not irritate its skin.
In winter an outer amaat was worn over the inner amaat, and there were sometimes two layers of
fur, which permitted an insulating layer of air between. Without a front fastening to the garment,
the warm air could not escape. There was circulation of air on the mother’s back, between her
shoulder blades and working upwards, so that she was able to regulate it via the hood. If she, or the
child, was too warm, the mother would throw back the hood, allowing the child to look out over her
shoulder. An advantage of the wide hood was not only that it gave space for the child’s head inside,
allowing it to look out at the world. The wide hood also allowed sufficient fresh air to reach the baby
when it was sitting deeper down in the amaat, on its mother’s back.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
Under trousers and over trousers
Women also wore the naatsit, the pair of short breeches. Over these they wore a small pair of overtrousers, much shorter than the man’s. Between boots and trousers the thighs were partly
uncovered. The bare parts of women’s thighs often had a darker colouration than the rest of their
bodies, resulting from light frostbite and from sunlight. Fortunately, women spent most of their time
indoors, sitting on the house platform. The design for this short pair of women’s trousers
consequently appears to owe something both to fashion and to practical adaptation to conditions.
Women’s boots were usually longer than the men’s, always reaching to above the knee. The boots
were slightly shorter on the front of the knee, and were split there in the shape of an bracket. The
upper edge was often trimmed with fur.
Hair style and finery
Women wore their long hair piled on top of the head, fastened with a hair ornament made of beads
and cotton. Sometimes amulets were worn in the hair, and amulets were also often worn on the
inside of the tail attached to the front of the amaat, or (as in the case of men) to a band on the
upper arm. A woman often wore a necklace in the form of a string of beads, from which a large
number of shorter bead strings hung down over the breast. Women also often wore the naatsit
inside the house, together with the hair ornament and a necklace.
Many women were tattooed on their faces, arms, legs and upper bodies. Tattooed women were
considered beautiful, and were also believed to go the kingdom of the dead (i.e., heaven) after
death, just like great hunters, and women who had borne many sons. Unsuccessful hunters and
women without tattoos ended in the underworld after death. Tattooing was also linked with the
production of children - tattooed women were believed to suffer less pain in childbirth. This belief
may have been connected with the fact that the application of the tattoo, using needles and soot for
the black colouring, was a painful experience.
For the child’s first two months of life, it wore no clothes, but was carried inside its mother’s amaat.
Its first garment was little more than an anorak resembling a dress. Once the child became too large
for the amaat, a pair of pants, and boots were made for it. The five-to-seven-year-olds began to
wear garments that, to a certain extent, imitated adults’ clothing.
For example, little girls wore amaats made to their size. Boys’ clothing consisted of a simpler and
smaller version of the adult men’s clothes. When children reached puberty the shorts - the naatsit
- became a necessary item of wear.
Special clothing
The Inuit of East Greenland had various garments for wear in special circumstances, or on special
occasions, or for special activities.
Kayak anorak made from intestines: ikkiaq
An ikkiaq is a waterproof, hooded anorak formerly worn by Inuit hunters in their kayaks. These kayak
anoraks were made from strips of gut skin sewn together. Gut skin is waterproof, and is thus
especially suited for use in the kayak, and also in any damp or wet weather. By the end of the
nineteenth century in East Greenland, jackets of this kind were especially worn by the men, but some
women also wore them.
In East Greenland the ikkiaq was often decorated with narrow strips of depilitated black seal skin.
The hood was joined to the back panel, rather than consisting of a separate piece. At the front, the
hood was closed with a short seam under the chin. The shoulder pieces were set in separately,
reaching to the shoulder blades at the back, and ending in two narrow bands.
Leather kayak anorak: qaajarsiit
Between 1884 and 1900 in the Ammassalik region, another type of kayak anorak was worn - the
qaajarsiit. This anorak, made of dark-coloured seal leather, was sometimes worn over the gut-skin
anorak. This leather was rendered waterproof with seal oil. The anorak was often beautifully
decorated with leather strips along the seams, and with beads made of bone. Small leather thongs,
which could be pulled tight, were threaded through the seam on the bottom edge of the garment,
through the seams at the bottom of the sleeves, and through the hood seam. The thongs were
drawn so tightly that no water could penetrate the hood or sleeves. The bottom of the anorak was
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
tied fast to the opening of the kayak with a leather strap, so that no water could get into the
hunter’s clothing or into the kayak itself. This allowed the hunter to turn right over in his kayak,
finishing the right way up on the water without shipping any. (The Dutch have created an active verb
for this: ‘Eskimoteren’ - ‘to rotate like an Eskimo’!)
On the back panel of the anorak there were two small leather thongs, which came over the
shoulders to meet in the middle of the front panel. There, they could be drawn tight in such a way
that the anorak was slightly pulled up. This made sure that no water could be left in the bottom of
the kayak anorak. At the back of the hood, two leather thongs with bone beads could be drawn
tight, to fasten the hood securely to the head, thus ensuring that the hunter did not peer into the
back of his own hood when he looked behind him.
At the end of the nineteenth century there was a third type of kayak anorak in use, made of white,
bleached leather at the top, and of dark-coloured, waterproof leather at the bottom. There were
marked similarities between the use of this anorak and the use of the dark-leather kind.
These days, a kayak anorak is regarded in East Greenland as typical men’s wear. However, this
anorak is no longer worn at the moment. The first garment to disappear from use was the anorak
made from intestines, which was completely replaced by the leather anorak. Later on, at the end
of the 1960s, leather anoraks also disappeared, but some hunters still wore them on festive
occasions, as they did when the Queen of Denmark visited Tiniteqilaaq village in 1967. At that time,
hunters were already wearing cotton anoraks in their kayaks, of a grey-green colour useful as
camouflage, or else thick woollen sweaters. In wet weather nylon raincoats, or oilskins, were (and
are) worn.
Kayak mittens: maattaalit
Together with the kayak anoraks men also wore kayak mittens, maattaalit. These mittens each had
two thumbs, for a good reason. The Inuit of East Greenland drove their kayaks forward by means
of a paddle, consisting of a shaft with a blade on each side. When the hunter paddled, each blade
disappeared under the water, in turn. The hunter’s mittens, which protected him against cold and
damp, became wet on the palm because the water thrown up by the paddle trickled down the shaft.
A wet leather mitten was heavy and cold, and in order to avoid this problem, each mitten was given
two thumbs which could be used alternately. When the mitten was turned, the wet side came
uppermost, and had the chance to dry out. Of course, the water on the mitten froze, but the thin
layer of ice could easily be knocked off. The kayak mitten was still in use up to quite recent times.
The invention and manufacture of such functional articles of clothing required a high degree of
creativity. The leather whaling suit was equally functional and inventive.
Whaling suit: qartiipasalik
In former times the people of East Greenland used a waterproof leather suit (qartiipasalik) while
hunting whale. This was a combination of boots, trousers, sleeves, mittens, jacket and hood, all
sewn together into one unit.
The suit could be pulled on via a hole in the front, at waist height, then fastened with a leather
thong. According to some informants, several inhabitants of the Ammassalik region were still wearing
this kind of suit in 1884, from superstition. This kind of waterproof combination suit was probably not
found outside Greenland.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
7. The development of polar clothing
The function of clothes
Clothes have three functions: protection, ornamentation, and the expression of identity. Which of
these three functions takes priority depends on the society. In the Arctic region, protection was the
chief function, particularly against the cold, yet certain items of clothing also served to protect the
wearer against supernatural threats, while hunters wore camouflage when seeking their prey.
The peoples of the polar region also decorated their clothing in many different ways, within limits
imposed by the climate. Some items of clothing were not particularly functional with respect to the
cold, but continued in use because of local aesthetic concepts. One example of this is the woman’s
short trousers. Coats with attached gloves - a perfect solution to the problem of cold - are only found
among the peoples of Siberia. Yet this item would also have been eminently suited to the climate
of Greenland. The fact that they were missing from other areas of the region shows that cultural
factors weighed more heavily than adaptation to the climate. Consequently it is incorrect to accept
the natural environment as the sole explanation for the development of polar clothing. The cold
experienced in such an environment is less hostile for the peoples of the region than it would be for
us. They have always had, and still have, an outstanding ability to adapt themselves to their
environment, and to use it for establishing a way of life.
Cultural aspects are an intrinsic part of clothing, being just as important as the demands of the
natural environment for the development and retention of particular items of clothing, and the
development of designs and techniques.
Clothing as expression of identity
In most societies, clothing is used to distinguish between members of different groups, and between
different members of the same group. In the latter case, the distinction usually concerns age group,
gender, and sometimes status (for example, that of married woman, or successful hunter). Other
aspects of clothing can express ethnicity, season of the year, age, social standing, religion,
occupation, and important events in a life cycle.
Formerly, as now, all these aspects might be easy to comprehend from the clothing worn within a
particular society. However, this is not the case in most of the cultures found within the Arctic region.
Thus wealth and poverty are barely expressed in clothing, and a person’s age cannot be seen from
garments alone, since girls and boys usually wear the same clothes as their parents. Most of the
cultures within the Arctic region were egalitarian, since there was no permanent leadership - no
kings, headmen, or chieftains. There was no clear hierarchical structure, and there was little
specialisation. Within each group, everyone performed the same tasks, and there were hardly any
real specialists. The only division of labour was based on gender and age, the clearest role-division
being that between men and women.
This is not to say that all members of the society lived on an equal footing. Differences between the
sexes, and between the old and the young, between hunters and non-hunters, certainly influenced
one’s social position. For example, in East Greenland a great hunter - piniartorsuaq - enjoyed great
respect, and high social status. Nonetheless, this gave him no absolute authority or leadership. This
may be the reason why there was very little expression of hierarchical position in clothing, and few
garments for special occasions.Wealth was revealed only in the new clothes that a prosperous family
could more often afford, in comparison with poor families possessing fewer seal skins.
Every woman made the clothing needed for her own use, and that of her family. Because of this a
collective approach developed, together with a common ‘language’ of clothing. Designs were passed
on from mother to daughter, and were often connected with particular families. Within this clothing
tradition there was room for individual variety, and the degree of innovation differed from region to
At present one of the main functions of polar clothing appears to be the expression of identity.
Indigenous cultures are undergoing radical change as the result of contact with ‘western’ culture. A
new political organisation, as well as new technology, is being introduced. The Greenland
hjemmestyre - self-government - provides a clear example of this. There are political parties, including
a government party and an opposition. The Greenland government takes its own decisions on a great
number of matters connected with social and economic life.
On official occasions the men wear a white anorak, even in the Greenland Parliament. A cotton
anorak is light, supple, and very suited for indoor use, while the shape is based on that of the
traditional hunter’s clothes. This garment thus emphasises the men’s identity as Greenlanders. The
anorak shows clearly the difference between Greenlanders and non-Greenlanders - mostly Danes.
In this way clothes can play an important role in the political battle for Greenland’s political and
economic rights, and in the development and maintenance of a separate identity. This also shows
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
that polar clothing is more than just a protection against the cold.
Festive clothing
In the past many of the people of the Arctic region had no special festive clothing. They simply wore
their finest or newest clothes on special occasions. These, however, were virtually the same as
ordinary, everyday wear, without special significance. The lack of festive clothing derived from the
social and political structure of these societies, egalitarian and without leaders. It was only after long
contact with non-Inuit people that special festive wear began to be developed. This may be
connected with the new materials then beginning to appear in the Arctic - beads and cotton, for
West Greenland had a festival known as mitaartut, which had marked similarities to the East
Greenland traditional feast, uaajeertut. The name mitaartut derives from the West Greenland verb
mitarpoq, meaning ‘to dress up’, or ‘to pull strange faces’. In East Greenland this feast was also
celebrated in the winter, at about the same time as the Christian celebration of Twelfth Night (called
the Feast of Three Kings on the Continent) on the 6th of January. Consequently mitaartut was also
named Kongepingasiit, literally ‘three kings’, although differences can be found. At this celebration
grotesquely dressed figures appear, turning normal relationships upside down; men are dressed in
women’s clothes, and paint their faces black and red. Just as clothes are an expression of identity,
‘dressing up’ is a sign that the normal identity is temporarily being exchanged for a different one.23
Today, the Lutheran Church festivals are celebrated in both East and West Greenland. On such
occasions the Inuit wear the Sunday suit (Kalaallisuut), which developed during the course of the
twentieth century. This costume is worn not only on Sunday, for going to church, but also on festive
occasions such as baptisms and weddings. The woman’s Sunday suit consists of a cotton anorak with
a huge, colourful bead collar or yoke, shoulder covering, a pair of short seal-skin trousers decorated
with leather mosaic, and long, finely finished boots. The men wear black trousers, beautifully worked
black seal-skin boots, and a white cotton anorak. Today, these clothes are regarded as the national
Today, people of the Arctic region are becoming ever less dependant on their natural surroundings
for their living. Changes in life style, and the use of new techniques, impose new demands on
clothing. Nowadays the Inuit often have paid jobs in hospitals, schools, shops, or on trawlers working
in the industrial fisheries. People often have only a short journey between home and workplace, so
that there is no longer any need for two fur coats, worn one on top of the other. In properly heated
houses, people usually find T shirts, sweat shirts and jeans comfortable to wear. The transition to a
new life style has created new needs in the clothing area. East Greenlanders purchase a large
proportion of their clothes in boutiques and stores, or through the post via catalogues. The extent to
which this is done varies according to region.19
With the advent of new materials and new articles of clothing deriving from ‘western’ culture, age
differences are now expressed more markedly in the clothes worn. Older men and women usually
retain their traditional garments for longer. Thus in East Greenland the older men, especially,
continue to use their seal-skin boots (kamiit) for everyday wear, while the younger males walk
around in sports shoes, wellington boots, or other ‘western’ footwear.
This is not to say that traditional, indigenous clothing is disappearing from the entire polar region on the contrary. Even in Greenland, fur garments are still made, and are still being worn by hunters,
for protection during long journeys by snow scooter. Indigenous garments still compare favourably
with ‘European’ clothing. Modern ‘cold weather’ garments make considerable use of synthetic
materials, designed to trap as much air as possible, in the same way as fur. This kind of clothing is
made from thin layers, each of which permits the transfer of perspiration to the next layer. In this
way perspiration collects in the outermost layer, which has the best chance of drying out. Generally
speaking, synthetic materials have a rapid drying rate. The Inuit also buy modern polar clothing of
this kind. Only in extremely cold areas, such as North Greenland, are fur garments still preferred,
since they still appear to provide the greatest degree of insulation. Indigenous clothing is increasingly
worn as festive dress, and as the expression of the Greenlander’s identity.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
Amaat (plural amaati)
Woman’s coat with hood, and wide back panel for carrying a child.
Ammassak (plural ammassat)
Small fish (Capelin, Mallotus villasus). The neck vertebrae are used as beads.
Large beads.
Anorak (East-Greenland: annangraaq)
Jacket with hood, without front fastening. This garment is pulled on over the wearer’s head.
Greenland’s home government.
Waterproof kayak anorak made from gut skin.
Snow goggles.
Sunday suit worn in East and West Greenland; women’s national costume.
Kamiit (singular kamik)
Boots made of seal fur, sewn with sinew thread; found among all the Inuit.
Kayak (East-Greenland: saqqit)
A one-person boat, driven with a paddle. Found throughout the entire Arctic region.
Bone or aluminium scraper used in East Greenland for removing the last traces of fat from seal skin.
Twelfth Night (Feast of the Three Kings) in East Greenland.
Leather mittens. In East Greenland, Maattaalit with two thumbs are used in the kayak.
The skin and fat of the whale, regarded as a delicacy in Greenland.
Festival in West Greenland. Shows marked similarities to the East Greenland festival of Uaajeertut.
Underpants, worn by both men and women.
Coat with hood. This is found in many variations, long and short, throughout the entire Arctic region,
and is worn by both men and women. In Greenland this garment is called an anorak.
Great hunter.
Waterproof kayak anorak made from seal leather. In the Ammasalik region this was sometimes
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
worn over the anorak made from gut skin.
Board over which the seal skin is stretched while being scraped free of fat.
Leather whaling suit from East Greenland. The suit consisted of boots, trousers, jacket, mittens and
hood, all sewn together.
Woman’s knife from East Greenland. The West Greenland women’s knife, the ulu, is better known.
Small round beads.
Small cylindrical beads.
Curved woman’s knife from West Greenland. This is used for all household tasks, including the
skinning of seals and scraping the fat from their skins.
Festival in East Greenland, no longer celebrated. Aspects of this festival are to be found in the
Twelfth Night (Three Kings) festival - Kongepingasiit and Mitaartut.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
Some of the sources consulted which are of interest here:
Barnes, Ruth and Joanne B. Eicher (eds.)
Dress and Gender, Making and Meaning. Providence / Oxford.
Barthes, R.
The fashion system. (Transl. M. Ward, R. Howard. Original 1967). New York.
Birket-Smith, K.
Eskimoerne. Rhodos.
Buijs, Cunera
Kleding van Oost-Groenland in ontwikkeling. Yumtzilob 5,4: 315-352.
1999 Developments in Clothing and Identity in Greenland. In: Jarich Oosten en Cornelius Remie
(eds.), Arctic Identities, Continuity and Change in Inuit and Saami Societies. Leiden:
Research School CNWS, School of Asian, African and Amerindian Studies. CNWS
Publications. pp. 145-173.
Buijs, C. and G.M. Vogelsang-Eastwood
Patterns for: Arctic Clothing. Textile Research Centre: Leiden.
Buijs, Cunera and Jarich Oosten (eds.)
Braving the Cold, Continuityand Change in Arctic Clothing. Leiden: Research School CNWS.
Driscolle, B.
The Inuit amautik. I Like my hood to be Jull. Winnipeq.
Eicher, Joanne B. (ed.)
Dress and Ethnicity Change Across Space and Time. Oxford: Berg.
Gessain, R.
Ammassalik, ou la civilization obligatoire. Paris.
Dance masks of Ammassalik. Arctic Anthropology 21,2: 81-107
Graah, W.A.
Narrative of an Expedition to the east coast of Greenland etc. John W. Parker: London.
Graburn, N .H.H.
Circumpolar peoples: an anthropological perspective. Pacific Palisades, California.
Gulløv, H.C.
Whales, whalers and Eskimos: the impact of European whaling on the demography and
economy of Eskimo society in West Greenland. In: Cultures in contact, W.W. Fitzhugh
(ed.). Washinton, Londond: Smithsonian Institution Press. pp 71-99.
Gustav Holm Samlingen.
Genstande insamlet på konebåds-ekspeditionen til Ammassalik 1883-85. Nuuk,
Hansen, K.
Perler i Grønland. Kopenhagen.
Hatt, G.
Arctic skin clothing in Eurasia and
America, an ethnographic study. Arctic Anthropology 5,2: 3-132.
Clothing from East Greenland
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Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
Holm, G.
Ethnological sketch of the Angmagsalik Eskimo. In: The Ammassalik Eskimo, W. Thalbitzer
(ed.). (Meddelelser om Grønland 39). Kopenhagen: 1-148.
Huntfort, R.
Amundsen's poolexpedities in foto's. Ede,Antwerpen.
Issenrnan, B.
Inuit skin clothing: construction and motifs. Etudes/Inuit/Studies 9, 2: 101-119.
Female-male duality in Inuit clothing. Inuit Studies Occasional Papers 4: 169-174.
Issenrnan, B. en C. Rankin
Ivalu, traditions of Inuit clothing. Montreal.
Kaalund, Bodil
The Art of Greenland. Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag.
Kleivan, Helge
Dominans og kontrol i moderniseringenaf Grønland. In: Grønland i focus, Jan Hjarnø (ed.),
København: Nationalmuseet.
Kleivan, Inge
Mitartut, vestiges of the Eskimo sea-woman cult in West Greenland. Meddelelser om
Grønland, bnd 161, nr 5. København.
Contemporary Greenlanders. In: Handbook of North American Indians, 5 Arctic, D. Damas
(ed): 700-718.
Kleivan, I. and B. Sonne
Eskimos of Greenland and Canada. Leiden: Brill.
Koek, Afke
Ontwikkelingen in de kunst van de Angmagssalik Inuit. Verre Naasten Naderbij 12,3: 89102.
Lemouel, J.F.
Ammassalik dans les collections du Musée de l'Homme. Objets et Mondes 15,2: 259-266.
Lidegaard, Mads
The History of Greenland since the Time of Hans Egede. In: Greenland Past and Present.
Maqe, Elisa
Tunumiit mersertini oqalittuaat / Østgrønlandske børneeventyr / East Greenlandic Children’s
Story. Nuuk: Atuakatliorfik.
Meade, Marie
Sewing to maintain past, present and future. Etudes / Inuit / Studies, 14, 1-2: 229-239.
Meldgaard, J.
The Prehistoric Cultures in Greenland: Discontinuities in a Marginal Area. In: Continuity and
Discontinuity in the Inuit Culture of Greenland. Groningen: University of Groningen.
Mitartut, een groenlands winterfeest.Verre Naasten Naderbij 4, 2: 54-69.
Change in a hunting community inEast-Greenland. Folk 14/15: 163-204.
Leadership and headship. (Mededelingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 20).
Improvisation and innovation: social consequences of material culture. In: From fieldcase
to showcase. Research, acquisitionand presentation in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde.
Uithoorn, Amsterdam: 113-122.
Some recent developments in the Ammassalik district East Greenland, Folk, vol. 30, pp 21520
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Nordqvist, J.
De mummies van Qilakitsoq. Nuuk, Kopenhagen.
Skin boot production in Arctic Bay. Revue Canadienne d'Économie Familiale 36,4: 178-181.
Arctic Jewels. The traditional Inuit parka. Northwest Explorer: 16-21.
Notes from a northern diary, part 2.
Pelto, P.
The snowmobile revolution: technology and social change in the Arctic.
Petersen, R.
East Greenland before 1950. In: Handbook of North American Indians, 5 Arctic, D. Damas
(ed): 622-640.
East Greenland after 1950. In: Handbook of North American Indians, 5 Arctic, D. Damas
(ed): 622-640.
The pan-Eskimo movement. In: Handbook of North American Indians, 5 Arctic, D. Damas
(ed): 622-640.
Remie, Cornelius (ed.)
Facing the Future, Inughuit Youth of Qaanaaq. Nijmegen: Nijmegen University Press.
Robbe, Bernadette
Femmes Inuit. In: Côté Femmes. Musée de l'Homme. 23,33,34,67,68.
Een brede capuchon van zeehondehuid. In: Lieve lasten, hoe kinderen gedragen worden.
(I. van Hout (ed.) Amsterdam: Tropenmuseum / Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen. pp
Robbe, Pierre
Les Inuit 'Ammassalik, chasseurs de l'arctique. Mémoires du Muséum National d'Histoire
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Robert-Lamblin, J.
Ammassalik, East Greenland - end or persistance of an isolate? Athropolocical and
demographical study on change. Meddelelser om Grønland, Man & Society 10. København.
Sandgreen, Otto (ed)
Ammassalik fylder 100 fylder år 1894-1994, Uddrag af grundlæggernesdagbøger samt korte
biografier af samme. København: Otto Lindgreens Forlag.
Schneider, Jane
The anthropology of cloth. Annual Review of anthropology 16: 409-448.
Stefansson, V.
Clothes make the Eskimo. Man 8: 41-48.
Svensson, T .G.
Clothing in the Arctic: A means of protection, a statement of identity .Arctic 45,1: 62-73.
Thalbitzer, W.
Ethnographica! collections from East Greenland (Angmagsalik and Nualik)made by G.
Holm, G. Amdrup and ] .Petersen and discribed by W. Thalbitzer. In: The Ammassalik
Eskimo,W. Tha!bitzer (ed.). (Meddelelser om Grønland 39). Kopenhagen: 21-755.
The enigma of the woman's horned cap. In: Continuit y and discontinuit y in Arctic cultures,
C. Buijs (ed.). Leiden: 3-28.
Tinbergen, N.
Eskimoland. Rotterdam: D. van Sijn & Zonen.
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Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
Vaughan, Richard
The Arctic, a history. Dover: Allan Sutton Publishing Inc.
Clothing from East Greenland
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Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
1. The word Inuit (singular Inuk) means ‘people’. In South Alaska and Siberia, the Inuit call themselves Yuit and Yupik
(sing. Yuk) . The closely related Aleuts, who live in southern Alaska, call themselves ‘Unangan’ or ‘Aluti’. In Greenland
there is yet another term, Kalaallit (sing. Kalaalleq).
Outside their home regions the Inuit are better known under the name of ‘Eskimo’. However, in the past this name was
unknown to them. The term cropped up for the first time in a written communication from Father Briard, on his work as
missionary in ‘New France’ - Canada. The word Eskimo may derive from ‘Eskimantsik’, a word the Wabanaki
Indians used, in a derogatory way, for ‘eater of raw flesh’. Among the Cree Indians in the south of the Hudson Bay area,
the name ‘Eskimau’ (plural Eskimawok) was used, with the same meaning. ‘Eskimo’ is thus an term of insult. For this
reason, only the word Inuit will be used here.
2. Niko Tinbergen, 1907-1988. Tinbergen himself wrote about his sojourn in Greenland:
"Through the generosity of Sidney Van den Bergh, I had been offered the opportunity of joining the Netherlands' small
contingent for the International Polar Year 1932-33, which was to have its base in Angmagssalik, the homeland of a
small, isolated Eskimo tribe. My wife and I lived with these fascinating people for two summers and a winter just
before they were westernised. Our first-hand experience of life among this primitive community of hunter-gatherers
stood us in good stead forty years laters when I tried to reconstruct the most likely way of life of ancestral Man."
3. Gerti Nooter, 1930-1998.
4. This system for retaining warm air can also be found in the houses of the Inuit and other Polar peoples. The igloo,
and the stone-built winter house, are both constructed in such a way that the living area is reached via a long, low entry.
The igloo reaches its full height inside the living area. Since warm air rises, relatively little escapes through the much
lower entry. The living area and thus be kept warm with the blubber lamp.
5. Among the Inuit of Canada, women wear clothing with a ‘tail’ at both front and back, which protects the wearer’s
body against dampness, and conserves the body’s warmth.
6. During various polar expeditions, for example the 1884 ‘Fram’ expedition, the explorers wore European clothing.
The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen issued expedition members, including himself, with the best possible
clothing, given the Norwegian standards of that time. He and his men wore European furs over a layer of wool. This
clothing was clearly too warm during times of physical effort, causing excessive perspiration. The wool underlayer
became considerably heavier, and the freezing of damp garments could cause a general over-cooling of the body.
“We quickly discovered that our clothes (European expedition clothing) was always too warm, causing too much
perspiration. Because our clothes absorbed bodily humidity, they became so heavy that they weighed us down to a
considerably degree when we were absent for the space of three days, and when we returned in the boat, our
clothes were so wet that they had to be hung for a long time over the stove to dry out. If we undressed in the cold
after having worn these clothes for some time, they immediately froze, so that it was difficult to draw them on
At a later date other Europeans, for example Amundsen, adopted indigenous fur clothing. Danish expeditions were
more prepared to learn from the indigenous peoples of the areas they were exploring. Yet those adopting the fur
clothing of the Polar peoples still remained in the minority.
7. In addition, the women of East Greenland had a large number of other names for beads, probably deriving from
words dating from an earlier epoch. Thus we find sikkulaarqat - small round beads; suluarpalaat - small cylindrical
beads; and angilertaat - larger beads.
8.The oldest bead ever found in Greenland, is three to four thousand years old, and dates from the period in which the
first Inuit-like people arrived in Greenland. It is made from steatite (soapstone) and may have been made as an amulet.
9. Also described as angmagssat, Capelin (a kind of small salmon - Mallotus villosus).
10. A bead necklace can also consist of a number of polar-bear’s teeth threaded, or sewn, onto a leather thong. A
necklace of this kind was almost certainly an amulet. The East Greenlanders still say that polar-bear teeth bring good
11. With a mouth-drill the man made a hole in the bead, so that it could be threaded or sewn onto a thong. Beads were
not only used for ornamentation, but for many different practical purposes as well, for example fastening a jacket, or as
a kayak button for fastening leather straps to the kayak top.
12. The Cachelot or sperm whale.
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
13. Nowadays these are small plastic beads bought in shops, and usually imported from Europe, Japan or Korea.
14. It is remarkable to see the influence the Dutch trade and whaling have had on Greenland. Not only do the Dutch
produce better iron ulus (women’s knives) than the Danes, but they also introduced strong drink, labour, and weapons.
15. The traditional boots, the kamiit for example, become broader after a few hours of walking, and then they slide on
the snow, but if they are sewn with sinew thread, they remain
waterproof because the sinew thread expands into the sewing holes. Nylon does not expand when wet, so that water
may penetrate the boots through the sewing holes. This can have serious consequences if the temperature drops below
freezing point. For this reason sinew thread is hoarded for its usefulness in making kamiit.
16. An amaat is a woman’s coat with an enlarged back panel and hood in which a baby can be carried.
17. In 1721 a Dutch ship landed Hans Egede, a missionary from Bergen appointed by the Danish king, on the island of
Håbets, close to the coast of the present-day main town of Nuuk (Godthåb). From there Egede began to organise the
colonisation and conversion of Greenland. He brought with him the book, published three years earlier, by Lourens
Feykes Haan, entitled Beschryving van de Straat Davids, Benevens deszelven Inwooners, Zede, Gestalte, en
Gewoonte, misgaders hunne Visvangst, en andere Handelingen. Als mede een kort en beknopt verhaal van de
Westkust van de zelfde Straat, of andere Noord America genoemd' (Description of the Davis Straits, together with its
inhabitants, morals, composition, and customs, including its fisheries, and other matters. Also a short and concise
description of the West coast of the same Straits, otherwise known as North America). By that time the Dutch had
already been trading for over a century with the Greenlanders in the Davis Straits, and whaling had begun a few years
before this time. To a large extent Egede was opposed to the Dutch, yet was at the same time dependent upon them, for
his supplies for example. The Dutch really only knew Håbets from their visits during the summer months. In 1728 the
winter weather compelled Egede to transfer his colony to its present site, Nuuk. There one can see his statue, looking
out over the fjord, and his house is still there.
18. Gustav Holm, 1849 - 1940.
19. Ammassalik, also spelled Angmagssalik, town, southeastern Greenland, on the south coast of Ammassalik Island.
The island is 25 miles (40 km) long and 12–20 miles (19–32 km) wide, with a high point of 4,336 feet (1,322 m).
Although Europeans landed as early as 1472, the region was not explored until 1884, when Gustav Holm, a Dane,
mapped the coast. A trading and mission station was established in 1895 to help sustain the Greenlandic (Eskimo)
population with imported food and firearms for hunting. It was named for a fish called angmagssat (capelin) found in
coastal waters. A weather and radio station is located there. Population: (1990 estimated) 1,465.
(Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica).
20. Gill Oakes, who recently carried out research among the Inuit of Canada, also mentions the fertility aspect, but in a
different context: The seam at the back was rolled inwards, and bound firmly under the armpits. When the wearer
began to menstruate, the bindings were cut, allowing the tail to fall down. (Oakes 1987:21).
Gill Oakes describes how the young Inuit woman, Rhoda, received an amaat from her mother-in-law upon her
marriage. When her first baby arrived she would carry him in her amaat. Later on she would pass on her complicated
bead ornament, more than fifty years old by that time, to her daughter, who had meanwhile reached her teenage years.
Thus the tradition continues to be maintained for the new generations.
21. The inside of the front panel is constructed in such a way that the fur hairs point upwards, rather than downwards as
is more usual. This prevents the amaat from riding up against the mother’s body, with the baby’s weight. Inside the
hood, and in the wide back panel, the fur’s nap is directed downwards, so that it is softer and less irritating for the child.
22. It was certainly possible to lengthen the legs of the short trousers. Detachable legs could be fastened to the legs of
the ‘shorts’. These additions must have been easy to put on and take off, since they were sewn to the main garment
with long stitches and thick thread. We know that this was the case in West Greenland, from the discovery of the
clothing worn by mummified bodies in a grave at Qilakitsoq dating from the sixteenth century. The women’s
remarkable short trousers were also connected with concepts of fertility.
23. At the beginning of the 1970s, the following event took place during the festival. On Twelfth Night (Three Kings) on 6
January, disguised ‘mummer’ figures show themselves in the streets, while some of them even sit in the Church
during the service. In West Greenland, during the daytime the ‘mummers’ are usually children and young girls, while
in the evening they are young, unmarried men. In East Greenland however, it is only the men who dress up, at any rate
according to a report dating from 1968. They are dressed in a grotesque way, wearing cardboard masks, while their
faces and hands are blackened with soot. Men wear women’s clothes, and stuffed-out garments suggest an advanced
stage of pregnancy. At the same time they often wear a penis made of paper, rolled up. Their clothing also shows other
unusual features, such as a rubber boot on the left foot and a seal-skin boot on the right. The mummers threaten people,
but do not actually hit them, and they are silent in case they are recognised by their voices. They try to blacken the
bystanders with soot, and to make them laugh. In the houses they are given small presents. If a mummer is
recognised, he is out of the game. The mummers represent the Three Kings, but they all wear the same kind of
costume. As a rule there are only two of them, and they claim that one of the Three Kings got lost in the dark.
According to the Greenlanders themselves, Kongepingasiit (mitaartut) was not celebrated in former times, but another
old Greenland festival, called uaajeertut, had a number of similar features, for example the dressing-up in disguise, the
Clothing from East Greenland
© Cunera Buijs
Digital publications of the National Museum of Ethnology
use of soot, the pulling of faces, making bystanders laugh, and transvestite elements.