In snowy Alaska, if you spend hours in the brilliant sun of spring or summer, you risk snow blindness, a sunburn on your cornea from reflected ultraviolet light.
For thousands of years, indigenous peoples throughout that region have had a technology solution: Snow goggles, fashioned from a strip of bone, wood or other material, with a slit cut into it, greatly reduced glare and protected eyes from injury. Ann McMullen, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, oversees research for its holdings, including the snow goggle collection; the pair shown here was made from whale baleen.
This style of eyewear can even improve vision, as Ann Fienup-Riordan discovered one day in 2010. An Anchorage-based anthropologist who works with the Yupik people to develop exhibits and books about their culture, she had recently undergone surgery on her retinas, and “the vision in my right eye was still pretty fuzzy,” she says. But when she held the Yupik goggles up to her eyes? “I could see!”
What was going on? It turns out the slit focuses the light, much as a pinhole camera does. As a result, far-off objects appear sharper “and your vision was much, much better,” Fienup-Riordan says. Long before the invention of eyeglasses with glass or plastic lenses, Alaska’s indigenous inhabitants, including the Yupik people, devised their own corrective eyewear. Phillip Moses, a tribal member in Toksook Bay, calls them “Yupik prescription sunglasses.”
The gear is a testament to exceptional engineering talent. The Yupik people do not possess an indigenous word for “science,” but they have had a nuanced grasp of the physics, biology and chemistry that propel the natural world. They use every material they can get their hands on to craft tools and clothing that help them survive a frigid, treacherous environment.
To keep warm indoors, they devised an entrance to their wooden houses, or qasgi, that tunnels downward in a U shape. Since warm air rises, it cannot escape through the submerged exit. To keep dry they created a waterproof lining out of fish skins, a kind of rustic Gore-Tex. While out hunting and fishing, the Yupik people always carry a negcik, a wooden walking stick with a bone hook affixed to the end. It becomes a claw with myriad uses: grabbing items out of kayaks, protecting yourself from bears, or pulling yourself out of freezing water if you’re unlucky enough to fall in.
“Our ancestors were so ingenious in making hunting tools,” a Yupik elder named Willie Kamkoff once told Fienup-Riordan. Paul John, a Yupik elder who lives in Toksook Bay, says, “One can see their intelligence through their things.”
It’s tough stuff, too. At the American Indian museum is a Yupik child’s parka, made from soft bird skin lined with feathers—a gorgeous piece of craft. One day Frank Andrew, a tribal elder, examined it with Smithsonian curators and Fienup-Riordan. He described how traditionally you’d care for it. “Take it outside and beat it with a stick,” he said.
In a world increasingly concerned with environmental resilience, Yupik technology is a beacon of sustainability. No scrap goes to waste. Yupik women twine grass into comfy socks and fashion it into fibers so strong they can be used as components in dog harnesses.
Some Yupik elders worry that reliance on modern Western goods and urban life is dimming reliance on creative traditions. But Fienup-Riordan believes that enough people are still hunting and fishing to preserve essential techniques. A new issue is emerging, though, one that is disrupting generations-old seasonal patterns.
“The ocean isn’t freezing up the way it did in the past,” she says. “Freeze-up is later in the fall. And break-up is much earlier in the spring. It’s really extraordinary.” After thousands of years of inventively surviving a subzero world, the Yupik people have a new engineering challenge: adapting to a warmer one.