Iggaak (ilgaak) ᐃᒡᒑᒃ – Inuit snow goggles

Wooden snow goggles, c. 1850, from the Parks Canada National Collection (catalogue number X.77.680.1). It is not known who made them or where. © Parks Canada Agency
For the week of Monday, June 14, 2021

On June 14, 1977, Parks Canada acquired a pair of Inuit snow goggles, known as iggaak (or ilgaak) in Inuktitut, dating to the mid-19th century. They are an important example of one of the earliest types of protective eyewear in the world, which some date as far back as the earliest Inuit period (circa 800 years ago).

Inuit and their ancestors use snow goggles to protect their eyes from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. This is important because the Arctic experiences constant daylight during the summer—one full 24-hour period coinciding with the summer solstice at the Arctic Circle (66°34’N), and progressively longer periods without a sunset as latitude increases. At the furthest point north—that is, at the North Pole (90°N)—this means six months of continuous daylight each year. Such prolonged sunlight can become dangerous for the eyes, especially when spending long periods on highly reflective ice or snow.

The Arctic sunshine can be associated with snow blindness—a type of sunburn affecting the eyes caused by sunlight reflecting off the snow, which may lead to temporary blindness and eye pain (photokeratitis). To prevent blindness during spring and summer activities, when the sun’s rays are strongest, Inuit and other northern peoples in Arctic countries like Canada devised different means of protecting their eyes.

Made from local materials, such as ivory, wood, caribou antler, bone, leather, whalebone, and baleen, Inuit snow goggles feature small slits that reduce the amount of ultraviolet light that reaches the retina of the eye, considerably reducing the risk of snow blindness. These goggles limit the field of vision, but make sight clearer.

The different climates, geographies, and available materials have resulted in the emergence of several varieties of snow goggles. Some peoples, including the Aleuts, whose homeland includes the Aleutian Islands, use alternatives to goggles, such as visors, which are especially helpful when hunting from a kayak. Today, snow goggles are used less, having been largely replaced by glasses with polarized lenses.

If you wish to know more about this object or others in the Parks Canada National Collection, please contact our curatorial department at pc.conservation-curatorial.pc@canada.ca

June is National Indigenous History Month. Learn more about the diverse histories and cultures of Indigenous Peoples by exploring articles in our online archives about Skmaqn-Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst, Francis Pegahmagabow (1889–1952), Wii Niisł Puuntk: A Matriarch of the Gitga’at of Hartley Bay, and Weaving Identity: Nlaka’pamux Basket-Making.