You will find the natural gore-tex in the Arctic Studies exhibit at Anchorage Museum

Isn’t it amazing to learn how much more our ancestors knew about the world, than what we know now? We think that technology’s evolved, that all the studies and Google helped us understand the world better, but in fact, we know so little about the ‘real’ world.

As I’m traveling the world, I see one obvious trend in the direction civilization is heading. We started small, as nature intended to. We lived in houses made with natural materials, got things to eat from plants and animals, learned the skills to survive the harsh winter and summer. As people formed civilization, they started trading their skills and stocks for things they needed, such as medicine or jewelry. We had traditional markets (what people used to call just ‘market’). From some time ago to this day, people found the need to build warehouses full of groceries and house supplies. They didn’t need to negotiate prices with the seller, because in fact, they didn’t even know who they were. This is the direction developing countries wanted to go.

Now people are slowly realizing how important and valuable those ‘traditional’ markets were, when things were naturally organic. The neighborhood I grew up in still has the traditional market I used to go to with my mom. People at one point got fascinated by big western style supermarkets, but more are realizing how good we originally had it. Asian cuisine and oriental medicine are slowly coming to the Western world. From time to time I encounter these movements that motivate people to go back to the olden days in the States as well. Get your meat from the butcher, vegetables from the nearby garden, and fruit from the orchards. Just like what my parents, grandparents, and their grandparents did. It’s astonishing how much our ancestors knew about the relationship between the human body and nature. Today we are re-learning what our ancestors already found out centuries ago.

Close up of the gut parka
Close up of the gut parka

The all natural raincoat: gut parka chag^talisax^

There was one item that drew my attention at the Arctic Studies exhibit at Anchorage Museum. It looked like a thin plastic pancho. It is labeled ‘gut parka‘. The original name is chag^talisax^, meaning gut parka or rain gear in Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut dialect) language. Women sewed waterproof ‘raincoats’ using the gut (intestine) of any large sea mammal. The design included a hood with drawstring. Men always wore this in their kayaks to keep dry, usually with a bird skin parka underneath.

How genius is this? This is possibly the world’s very first high-tech wind and waterproof outdoor gear, natural gore-tex if you will, that humans ever made. Somehow, they discovered that a large sea mammal’s intestines were great at holding out water. Not only the parka was made from it, but they made fishing baskets with the same material. All these artifacts were dated from 1893. The Native Alaskans were the master at how to live off the land they had. They were never greedy, but knew how to utilize everything they possessed. They made a waterproof backpack out of the whole seal’s body. The fur was used to make winter gear. They made games and recreational products with the same materials, and sometimes decorated the chief’s outfit.

Think about what people do these days. People hunt the shark for only its fin. They cut the fin and leave the shark to slowly drown. Hunting for the gallbladder of bear, a small fraction of its total weight, is what made bears extinct in certain parts of the world. As we speak, rhinos are dying because people want their horn. We all know elephant ivories are one of the most valuable things on the black market.

It’s astonishing. I wonder what native people would think of these kinds of incidents, that people kill animals because of a false belief and vanity.

To remind myself of the ingenuity of native people, I came back with a small earring made with seal gut, made by a native artist (thanks Dave!).

Something to think about.


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8 thoughts on “Lesson Learned from the Gut Parka”

  1. I’ve never really thought of it like this – that our ancestors knew more than we do – but it’s so true! It’s crazy to think that they had such high-tech outdoor gears literally hundreds of years ago!

  2. Hmm that Gut Parka does look very interesting. I agree with your reflections Juno, local markets are something which we should preserve. Support local economies and get your food fresh rather than mass produced and modified items.

  3. Fascinating! And, well thought out. I wish we still practiced things the way our ancestors did. Perhaps the world would be a better place if it was all about survival instead of all about what’s cool, fun, etc.

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