I was enjoying the lovely fall colours, the warm days and crisp nights when suddenly Winter crept up on me. While I huddle here, fingers frozen, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how traditional arctic cultures dealt with infant carrying in the freezing temperatures.
Around the world, there seems to be two main approaches for transporting infants in cold climates: a soft carrier that shares body heat between child and caregiver which we’ll cover in this post, and a hard carrier that creates a micro-climate for the baby that I will cover in a future post.
The Inuit use a coat called an amauti to carry a child. A belt is used to tie off a pouch built into the back of the coat below the oversized hood. There are some variations in style, including amauti with a long back to protect the legs of the adult from a cold sled or ground. Other variations are in the distinction between the hood and the pouch. For some, the pouch is an extension of the hood so you may hear people say that the baby is “carried in the hood”, whereas in other styles the pouch is distinct from the hood.
Inside the pouch, infants from newborn to preschool age are carried. Younger infants may be swaddled for support but not necessarily, remember, concern about head support and clear airways are cultural and not universally recognized. Many cultures traditionally cocoon newborns, cover their faces, or allow heads to flop around, and positional asphyxiation is less of a concern when the baby is constantly being jostled.
How Amautis are Used
Above is a video by a non-Inuit woman who lived in the Eastern Arctic (Canada) for years, and learned how to use the amauti. She demonstrates the parts of the amauti and how she uses a swaddle for her young baby and places her baby in the pouch facing backwards.
Traditionally a child would be carried naked until they were old enough to spend more time outside of the coat, then they would get their own coat. Today, of course, infant clothing is much more readily accessible, even in the arctic.
Amauti from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Photos by Aradia Wyndham, 2017
Despite some Youtube controversy about how to properly get the baby into the coat, there is no “proper way” to do it (the argument being that “proper” means “without help”).
Traditionally, Inuit culture is emphatic about offering and accepting help. It’s a form of interdependence, cooperation, and hospitality that helps everyone survive in a difficult environment. Without a doubt, traditional Inuit women would have accepted or offered help getting a baby or child into or out of an amauti.
In the following clip, from the University of Alaska Film Archive, an Inuit woman gets help from a young girl to get the baby into position under her “parka” in the early 1920’s.
Modern Amautis are for Everyone
Today, amauti are made by Inuit people for traditional and contemporary babywearers, including non-Inuit people. If you are interested in using an amauti, whatever your genetic ancestry or cultural background, you will be supporting Inuit artisans by ordering one and rocking it all winter.
There is AmautiBaby (#notspons) and others (I have seen a few on Etsy). You might get a bit of sticker shock but keep in mind that they are bespoke pieces for a reason. Many years ago, I tried an amauti belonging to a very slightly shorter friend and quickly realized how important a custom-made amauti is for comfortable wear. The wearer’s height, bust, waist and arm measurements are vital to how the coat carries the baby while still allowing freedom of movement for the wearer. Of course, many contemporary babywearers will prefer to use a stand-alone carrier within the coat but with a true amauti, it isn’t necessary.
One of the major benefits of using a coat as the carrier is the proximity of the caregiver (usually the mother) to the baby, allowing for quick responses to non-crying cues for toileting or feeding. It also allows the adult and child to share body heat more effectively. Traditionally the child would be naked inside the coat, skin-to-skin with their mother, in terms of regaining body heat after being transferred, being naked is ideal for the child. When it was time for feeding, the mother could pull her arms inside the coat and spin it around so that her baby and the pouch was in front for easy access to the breast.
In the following video, from 1922, a mother takes her baby out of the amauti while she gets off of a canoe (hidden), once ashore we see her put the naked baby back into the amauti.
If you’re into semi-trashy Hollywood gossip, I recommend the wikipedia page for this movie– Allakariallak’s “wives” aren’t really his wives but rather the director’s lady friends. Scandalous stuff.
The following short film made in the 1940s about “Eskimo” family life. If you’re not familiar with educational films of the time period you might feel that the tone is a bit patronizing but it’s the same tone and style that was used for WASP family biopics at the time (equal opportunity patronizing).
In the film, they note how precious wood is, usually found in the form of driftwood. This kind of resource scarcity affects the style and form of a culture’s infant carriers. Nearly all resources that could be used to create an infant carrier are scarce in the arctic: skins, wood, grass, plant and animal fibers. Transforming a garment already in use by an adult into a multi-tasker, coat and carrier, is ideal because no additional resources are required until the child is older.
Today there are many kinds of babywearing coats available that are not associated with traditional cultures but none of them act as an infant carrier themselves (afaik). That is what makes the amauti unique to this day.
Have you ever tried an amauti? Any recommendations or tips to share? Would you like to try one? I’d love to hear from you.
In a future installment of this series, we’ll be exploring the way another arctic culture, the Saami, dealt with infant transport in the cold in a region with plentiful trees.
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Alaska Extreme. (No post date.) “Nanook of the North (1922)” YouTube.
Alaska Film Archives- UAF. 14 Nov 2012. “Alaska Native mother and child” Youtube. Clip of: “Eskimo Mother with Baby at Unalakleet, Manchatanz Collection 1958-1961”
Fawn Fritzen. 10 April 2009. “Amauti 101.” YouTube.
MichaelRogge. (No post date.) “Eskimo/Inuit children in 1940, Alaska.” YouTube.
Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto