Skip to Main Content

News Room: Announcements

Sheldon Jackson Museum May 2022 Artifact of the Month is a Pair of Yup'ik Grass Socks

by LAM Webmaster on 2022-05-11T10:17:00-08:00 in Artifact of the Month, Sheldon Jackson Museum | 0 Comments

For Immediate Release
May 11, 2022

woven and sewn grass boot linersThe Sheldon Jackson Museum May Artifact of the Month is a pair of twined Yup’ik grass socks or boot liners, alliqsiit, from Nushagak (SJ-II-A-32). They were presumably collected by Sheldon Jackson and appear on a museum inventory list from 1931. Although we don't have much information on file about the boot liners, there is a wonderful transcription of Yup’ik elders from Dillingham discussing them during a collections research visit in May of 2000.

Nushagak was a Native village originally home to both Yup’ik and Athabascan peoples, located at the northern end of Nushagak Bay in northern Bristol Bay, between present-day Clark’s Point and present-day Dillingham. Due to its location and the establishment of the Russian trading post of Fort Alexandrovski in 1818, it became a major trading site where Alaska Natives from along the Kuskokwim River, Cook Inlet, and Alaska Peninsula came to exchange goods and wares. Over time, Russians further established their presence at Nushagak, founding a Russian Orthodox Church.

Grass socks or boot liners like the May Artifact of the Month were used by men and women up until the 1950s. They provided warmth and absorbed perspiration, just like polypropylene and similar manmade fibers that offer wicking. When grass liners or socks were used in combination with loose grass stuffing inside of salmon skin or hide boots, a man would have dry, warm feet while kayaking on the ocean or driving a sled during the winter or spring snow melt. While salmon skin boots were waterproof and kept feet dry, grass socks kept the feet warm and provided padding underfoot. 

Dried grass is porous and has a lot of air spaces within its molecular structure. Heat is usually transferred from areas of higher temperature to areas of lower temperature until equanimity is achieved. The porous structure of grass makes it a naturally poor conductor of heat. When worn on or close to the body, the grass slows the transfer of heat away from the body, providing a warming, insulating effect.

Cotton grass is often used for socks or liners. It grows along the tundra and around ponds and is softer than the course beach grass traditionally used for baskets. Cotton grass can get wet and dry out over and over again without breaking. The socks were traditionally hung over a seal oil lamp overnight to dry. If well cared for and dried after each use, a single pair of grass socks could last a long time.

In May of 2000, four Yup’ik elders and culture bearers from the Dillingham area visited the Sheldon Jackson Museum to study and research the museum’s collection with then-curator Peter Corey. The elders included Elia Ishnook, born in Tichik, aged 75, at the time of the visit [birthdate unknown]; Wassillie Simeon, born in Kananerpak in October of 1929; Mary Ishnook, born at Nunacuaq in December of 1923; and Julia Apalayak, born at Kongiganek in March of 1927.

During their visit, Mary and Julia examined some grass socks and commented on the traditional use of grass liners. According to Julia, the socks were made of rye grass, and men wore them inside of boots for warmth while traveling, especially in the winter. She said that women made smaller pairs for themselves to wear ice fishing. The rye grass was gathered and dried in the fall, while reed was gathered in the summer. Rye grass was stronger, but reed was used for decorative purposes “or to sew with.” Julia remembered aloud, “The one who raised me made kuuskuqit [a huge woven grass basket] for black fish and other baskets.”

The Sheldon Jackson Museum May Artifact of the Month will be on exhibit until May 31. The museum has nearly two dozen grass socks or liners in its permanent collection. The majority are from the Kuskokwim region. Only three pairs are documented as coming from Nushagak. We're open Monday-Sunday, 9 am-4:30 pm. General admission is $9, $8 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of either the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.

Media Contact:

Patience Frederiksen
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums

Fienup-Riordan. Yuungnaqpiallerput: The Way We Genuinely Live, Masterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival. Seattle, WA. University of Washington Press, 2007.

Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge. The Smithsonian Institution, Arctic Studies Center, Accessed 9 May 2022.

 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.


  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.