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September 03, 2015

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: Mukluks

Mukluks 255337

Inupiaq mukluks, ca. 1950. Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association, Nome, Alaska. 25.6 x 9.8 x 23.2 cm; ugruk (bearded seal), white reindeer, calfskin, red felt, yarn. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/5337


The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) purchased many things from Native arts and crafts cooperatives in the United States as a way to showcase the latest regional work. Like this pair of mukluks, many objects in the IACB Headquarters Collection are products of Alaska.

These mukluks were made by members of the Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association. Originally funded by a bonus of $5,000 from Admiral Richard Byrd for clothing they provided for his Antarctic expeditions, the Nome Skin Sewers made skin parkas, pants, hats, and mukluks for sale. Its members were primarily Inupiaq women.

World War II had a profound effect on the arts and crafts of Alaska. In 1943, Alaskan arts and crafts brought in $242,100 in revenue; that figure rose to $420,201 in 1944 (Robert Fay Schrader, The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: An Aspect of New Deal Indian Policy, p. 281). In 1944, the Nome Skin Sewers alone sold $200,000-worth of products to the military (see Alaska History and Cultural Studies, "World War II brings economic activity").

Members of the military stationed in Alaska needed Arctic gear. Mukluks and skin parkas worked better than standard issue military clothing. Waterproof and reaching above the ankles, mukluks keep feet warm in ice and snow. Made around 1950, this pair of mukluks is sewn of ugruk (bearded seal), white reindeer, and calfskin. Red felt and yarn are used for decoration at top.

Emma Willoya
John Nichols, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Emma Willoya (Inupiaq), Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association, 1949. Nome, Alaska. Photo by E. P. Haddon/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2010 Uqaaqtuaq News printed a 1980 interview with Emma Willoya, a founder of  the Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association and its manager in the 1950s. After talking about reindeer herding and the use of reindeer hides, Ms. Willoya recounted a disagreement with a customer who chastised her for the strong smell of the home-tanned skins she used to make boots. She explained that although Outside-tanned skins might be softer, they drew in moisture; hand-tanned, Alaska-tanned skins were more durable and warmer:

“You make them for me Outside-tanned anyway!”

So we made them Outside-tanned. Later on, he came in, the big shot, and sat by the heating stove. I was in the other room, taking inventory, when one of the sewers called, “Emma, you have to come out here! This man won’t listen!” Here the man had taken off his mukluks and put them on top of the heating stove!

“Good Lord! You can’t do that! Look what you did!” I went and picked them up. They were shriveled on the bottom. When I touched them, they tore to pieces. I told him, “You spoiled your mukluks! I told you they wouldn’t last! Outside-tanned mukluks draw moisture and freeze your feet!” He wanted to dry them right away and he cooked them.

He began to understand that Eskimos knew a little more than he did. Next time he ordered Alaska-tanned mukluks and his feet were never cold again. Even in wet and snowy weather he wasn’t cold.

—Anya Montiel

Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is part of a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection at the museum.

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