Snow Goggles

A group of Inupiaq men sitting, one wearing traditional snow goggles
An Iñupiaq man wears traditional style snow goggles. Barrow (Utqiagvik), Alaska, circa 1925. University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives, Presbytery of the Yukon Collection, 1995-0244-01421

If you have spent time outside on a sunny day, you might have worn sunglasses – or wish that you had! Light colored surfaces like white sand and snow have a high albedo, meaning that they reflect a lot of sunlight, causing a lot of bright light to enter your eyes. Squinting can make bright light a little more bearable because it reduces the amount of light that gets to your eyes. The predecessor to modern sunglasses, called snow goggles, took advantage of this effect by creating goggles with narrow slits that reduce incoming sunlight. Sometimes, people rubbed charcoal or other dark material on the inside to reduce reflection of incoming light back into the eyes. (Football players use a similar method to reduce glare from sun and stadium lights when they apply black grease under their eyes.) Goggles were made out of a variety of materials and in a variety of shapes and styles, depending on what was available in the environment and the styles and preferences and skills of the people who made them.

In addition to causing discomfort and difficulty seeing, spending time outdoors in snow-covered landscapes on a sunny day poses a risk of snowblindness, a painful condition that can result in temporary blindness due to the eyes being burned by sunlight. Eye protection was critical for winter hunting and other outdoor activities in the past just as it is today, and snow goggles more than 1,500 years old have been found in archaeological sites in Canada. These old style snow goggles are no longer common, but some Alaska Native elders remember their fathers or grandfathers wearing traditional snow goggles (Ahwinona, 2001).

To learn more about each of the examples below and to see photos of many other types of traditional snow goggles, click the link to view the full museum collection record.

one-piece wooden snow goggles with slit in center to allow light in

noxtth’og (“snow goggles, glasses”) – This simple but effective style of snow goggles, made from one piece of wood with a single eye slit, was made and used in many areas of Alaska. This example from the mid-1800s is from the Deg Xinag Dene (Athabascan) region of the lower Yukon River.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E5581

Traditional snow goggles made of one piece of wood with two eye slits, a "visor-like ridge" above the eye slits, and a notch for the nose (not visible in image)

nigaugek (“old-style snow goggles made out of wood”) – Carved out of a single piece of wood, these Central Yup’ik snow goggles from Mission in the lower Yukon River region of Alaska have separate slits for each eye and date from the mid to late 1800s.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E38251

Single piece of (walrus ivory?) with multiple parallel slits

iyegaatak (“snow goggles, sunglasses”) – Featuring multiple parallel slits, these Siberian Yup’ik snow goggles are from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, pre-1913.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E280226

Carved from one piece, shaped wooden snow goggles with two oblong eye holes cut

nigaugek (“old-style snow goggles made out of wood”) – These goggles from the Central Yup’ik village of Kushunuk are carved out of a single piece of wood and date to the late 1800s. The eye openings are large, but the inside of the goggles under the eye opening are darkened with soot to reduce glare.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E36351

Snow goggles made of two round pieces sewn of birch bark with holes in the middle, connected by birch bark (?) strip

deiizhii (“eyeglasses”) – These late 1800s Gwich’in (Dene) Athabascan goggles are sewn from birch bark and have a leather strap. They are from the upper Yukon River area of Alaska, where birch trees are plentiful.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E153427A

yukłuktaak (“snow glasses, snow goggles”) – These late 1800s Iñupiaq snow goggles from the Norton Sound area of Alaska are made of softened, bent, and cut Dall’s sheep hooves.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E37619

yukłuktaak (“snow glasses, snow goggles”) – These pre- 1867 Iñupiaq snow goggles from the Norton Sound area of Alaska are made of wood, featuring two separate eye slits, a notch for the nose, and a projection above the eyes to provide additional sun protection.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History E24340

Learn more about Alaska Native snow goggles in this video from the Alaska Native Heritage Center.