Snow Goggles and Changing Technology

I am using this image of a stone figure with “snow goggles” to lead off a short reflection on changing technologies in North and West Alaska.  Obviously, this figure is purely decorative, but it represents a real-life scenario/issue in the lives of Yup’ik and Inupiaq Alaskan Natives as well as in the lives of all modern-day inhabitants of these regions.  Due to the snowy nature of the northern landscape throughout much of the year, the unusual angles at which sunlight approaches the poles, and the long exposure of hunters to direct sunlight in the Arctic and immediate sub-Arctic, the Yup’ik and Inupiaq cultures developed “snow goggles” as a means of defense against “snow blindness.” Here are some examples of Alaskan Native snow goggles:

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Snow blindness is a potentially serious medical condition known in medical speak as “photokeratitis.” Essentially it means “sunburned eyes.”  While snow blindness can be immediately painful and cause a temporary loss of some visual functions, the long-termed threat of prolonged UV damage to the cornea is no less than absolute and incurable blindness.  Custom “snow goggles” are therefore essential for Alaskans who travel outdoors and who wish to protect their eyes.  Traditional native “snow goggles” restricted UV flow to the eyes by making either a small slit or tiny holes in a piece of wood or bone which was custom fitted to the face of the person who would wear it.

Since the arrival of American settlers, a new technology has been introduced in the region: sunglasses.  An early example can be seen here:

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Specially created to lessen the UV intensity of light, modern sunglasses have been adopted by many in the Yup’ik and Inupiaq communities for use in hunting, travel, etc.  However, for reasons primarily of cost and access to cash money, the older style “snow goggles” continue to be made and used in the Alaskan West and North.  Thus, like certain other traditional native technologies, they continue to exist and be used alongside the technologies of the Western world.

The essential difference between snow goggles and sunglasses is that snow goggles change the quantity of light that reaches the eye, whereas sunglasses change its quality by filtering out UV rays.  Like the antique sunglasses shown in the above picture, most sunglasses used in the Arctic and immediate sub-Arctic for hunting come equipped with “blinders” on the sides that prevent UV rays from getting to the eyes around the lenses of the glasses themselves.  Such glasses are sometimes called “glacier glasses” or “glacier goggles.”

In everyday life, many inhabitants of Northern and Western Alaska have adopted glasses with “transitions” lenses for short journeys outside or travelling between houses.  It is only for longer distance journeys that snow goggles or glacier glasses will be used.

All images of artifacts in this post were produced courtesy of Alaska State Museum – Juneau.

1 thought on “Snow Goggles and Changing Technology”

  1. Ed,
    This is a fascinating post. When I was teaching in Nunapitchuk, I chaperoned a group of students for a “Future Problem Solving” competition. We travelled to Atmautluk by snowmachine. I was driving and was the only person wearing goggles. It was very windy and the temperature was something like 30 below. When we arrived in Atmautluk, I had frostbite in rings around my eyes where the goggles didn’t protect my skin. The kids were laughing and said that I looked like a raccoon. Nice work. I’m having a pleasant virtual visit to the SLAM facility this afternoon.

    Scott

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