Snow Goggles

Artist: Unknown
Culture/People: Yup’ik
Place: Alaska, North America
Media: Wood and natural fiber string
Dims: 1.375 x 5.125 in. (3.4 x 13 cm).
Date: c. 1875
RTC No: NA0619
Gift of Ralph T. Coe Center, 2011


If you have spent time with us in the Coe collection, you know that we privilege the power and impact of direct, hands-on engagement with the pieces that live with us. This is not a view reserved for certain visitors, but for anyone who crosses our doors, whether through a formal program or just a casual passerby. However, if you only follow us through reading The Virtual Coe or on social media, you might not always see just how we embrace engaging with our collection.

These two pairs of Alaska Native snow goggles serve as perfect illustrations for one of the many ways that folks have, and continue to, work with pieces in the collection. Snow goggles like these have been created for centuries across arctic Alaska. These highly functional objects of adornment are necessary tools for living in a snow-covered landscape. Anyone who has experienced the extreme glare off the surface of snow or sand understands the difficulty of navigating, much less performing precise tasks like hunting for food, with reflected light blinding you. The narrower you squint your eyes, the more you are able to filter out some of that extreme light. Snow goggles, in all their various forms, are designed based on the same principle. The narrow slits, small eye holes, or even stacked horizontal slices carved into the surface of wood or bone provide a light-filtering effect for the glaring, snow-reflected light of the tundra.

The snow goggles at the Coe are very popular pieces with our variety of visitors. Often people are not familiar with them and are amazed by how stunningly useful and beautiful they are. Other times, people are struck by the immediacy of crossing paths with such an emblematic slice of Alaska down in the high mountain desert. They are particularly popular with students. I like to bring these goggles with me when I take pieces from the Coe into various classrooms for students to study, engage with, draw, or sit with. On one visit, I asked a group of high schoolers where they thought the goggles came from, and one shouted out “from the future!”, which to me, is a perfectly apt description of these pieces. Even though they are from the past, they are also from today and look and feel like the future; they remind us of a future we haven’t lived yet.

Over the years, our Hands-On Student Curators have increasingly included their original hand made artworks alongside pieces from the Coe in their exhibitions. Those pieces, incorporating or inspired by the Coe collection, are extremely significant steps in the ongoing creation of dialogue and exchange between artists, objects, communities, and times. In 2019, for the Hands-On exhibition “Recollective Echo”, Aurora Escobedo (Tesuque Pueblo) created an amazing stop-motion video animating the relationship between the two pairs of snow goggles. Read her words below and watch her video here, along with another incredible short video created by curator Lesly Esparza. I ask that you take the five minutes to really sit with these two videos in order to experience how we get hands-on within the collection, but more than that, to pay honor and respect to the connection, love, and labor held in ancestor pieces and the new works that they inspire.

In the context of my individual project, I chose Cup’ik Yup’ik Nunivak Island wooden goggles, as well as Yup’ik wooden goggles, both from Alaska. In the process of picking pieces from the Coe Center I found myself confused as to why the pieces were in separate rooms. As they are both from Alaska, I figured they would be in the same room, but they weren’t. In my head I developed a story about these two goggles “in love,” in which they are separated from each other but find their way back. I decided to have stop motion as a medium—it’s a challenge in itself because of how much time it takes up. In a way, my story brought the two inanimate objects to life. This had me wondering about the personal stories of the people within these cultures.
—Aurora Escobedo (Tesuque Pueblo)
Also, see NA1825.

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