Smithsonian - National Museum of Natural Historyheader spaceAinu

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People

Chise: The Ainu House
Room 4 Overview

Slideshow narration:

The traditional center of Ainu life was the house or "chise." Its characteristic plan of one long room with an entrance area and central hearth reflected organization around spirituality and domestic activities. Daily activities for women included cooking, gardening, fishing, gathering edible or medicinal plants and the making of intricately designed clothing. Men hunted, fished and carved. Both men and women could be shamans.

(1) Room QTVR

(6) Objects w/captions – Stills

1. Floor Plan Drawing
The typical Shiraoi Ainu house, entered through an anteroom in the west end, was laid out around a central rectangular hearth where most everyday activities took place. Family treasures were stored in the lacquerware containers along an elevated platform in the northeast corner of the house or were hung on the walls behind them. Guests of honor were seated at the east end of the room near the god's window, which was reserved for the passage of gods. Outside this window stood the ritual altar of nusa. (HML, AMS)

The Ainu Museum at Shiraoi

2. Cloth Mittens
Cotton cloth was one of the most popular Japanese items imported to Ezo, Hokkaido.. These mittens, collected by Romyn Hitchcock in 1888 in Piratori, were probably made from a used Japanese kimono. The cloth has one of the many blue resist-dyed patterns that were popular in the mid-nineteenth century.

Romyn Hitchcock col. 1888, Piratori, Hokkaido
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 150688

3. Nipopo Dolls
Sakhalin Ainu shamans produced abstract wooden figurines called nipopo ("wooden baby"), used primarily as amulets for curing or warding off childhood disease. The addition of strips of red and blue cloth or a blue bead (on the upper figure) was thought to increase their power; such dolls were dressed in inaw-kike (wood shavings) to increase their efficacy. The two- headed figure may have been a charm to enhance the probability of giving birth to twins. (Twins were believed to bring success in fishing and hunting among the Sakhalin Ainu and neighboring Eastern Siberian groups. A similar belief was also held by the Kwakwaka'wakw, the native people of Canada's Northwest Coast.) These nipopo were collected in Novoe, Sakhalin, in 1945. Both have the deep patina of long-held personal treasures.

Kan Wada Collection
B. Wada, col. 1945, Novoe, Sakhalin

4. Child's Salmon Skin Coat
Originally all Ainu garments were made of skin, fur, and feathers, and these types of clothing survived in Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands into the twentieth century. Salmon skin was highly prized for making strong, light, durable waterproof garments. Sakhalin Ainu decorated fishskin garments with delicate appliqué, as did their neighbors in the lower Amur River region. This child's coat has a Sakhalin Ainu cut but was collected in Hokkaido – like people, artifacts often end up far from home. This coat may have come to Hokkaido with Ainu refugees expelled when Sakhalin was turned over to the Russians in 1875. In 1896 it was sold to Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd, a participant in an Amherst College expedition that came to Hokkaido to view a solar eclipse.

M. Todd col. 1896, Esashi, Hokkaido
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts E3390

5. Kimono and Embroidered Headband
After the introduction of the backstrap loom, Ainu ancestors began weaving attush, cloth made from the inner bark of the elm tree and from linden and nettle plants. Men were responsible for procuring the bark, but weaving, sewing, and decorating clothing were women's tasks. Designs were embroidered on old cotton clothing or fabric scraps obtained from the Japanese and then sewn onto the attush. The designs are done for spiritual protection and to please the gods. This man's robe was collected in Tsuishikari, Hokkaido, by Romyn Hitchcock during a trip on behalf of the Smithsonian in 1888.

R. Hitchcock, col. 1888, Tsuishikari, Hokkaido
(kimono) Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History E150779 (headband) Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago) 234945

6. Ainu Robe
As Japanese cotton became more affordable, garments known as chikarkarpe, meaning "our embroidered thing," were developed by substituting cotton for attush (elm-bark cloth); Ainu often used old Japanese kimonos or yukata for the base fabric. The use of dark strips around the neck, front opening, sleeves, and hem of a garment was retained, but embroidery became more complex. The aesthetics of combining the base garment pattern with the embroidery created an unending challenge for the innovative Ainu textile artist.

Collected by Frederick Starr, Porosaru, 1904.
Brooklyn Museum of Art 12.582

(4) Videos

1. Commentary on Shamanism by Curator William Fitzhugh

"The Ainu have a spiritual religion that includes shamanism and many rituals and procedures that are rather similar to the natives of Siberia and also to North America. In this case we see some shaman's drums and small wooden figurines that are similar to Siberian idols, and ritual materials used to help you if you are sick or to change the weather or to make things go better for your family. Shamans were among the most important people in the Siberian Ainu and Sakhalin Ainu populations and wore belts that were very similar to the Siberian shaman's belts. But by the time of the early historical period, the last couple of centuries in Hokkaido, shamanism had disappeared and had changed largely into curing ceremonies that were done by women, without a lot of the ritual known in Siberian shamanism."

2. Commentary on Chise by Curator William Fitzhugh

"When we went to the Ainu with a proposal to do an exhibit at the Smithsonian on Ainu culture the one thing that they insisted must be in that exhibit was their chise - their house which we've reconstructed here through Mr. Nomotos' beautiful artistry. Everything in this show basically comes from this setting, the traditional Ainu house, a grass house made of wooden structures,grass mat floors and a hearth, a simple rectangular hearth in the center. Here you find all of the Ainu material culture, the materials for making clothing, men's fishing and hunting equipment. All these activities are centered here, around the fireplace where Fuchi, the god of the fire, the goddess of the fire, dwelled and blessed everyone."

C3. Commentary on Elm Bark Robe by Curator Chisato Dubreuil

"This kind of robe was called attush. It is made with elm tree bark. Basically they peel the elm bark and they soak (it) in a hot spring and then kind of make it really soft, and make it into yarn, and then weave it. It takes a lot of time. I think one garment takes one year to make."

4. Commentary on Clothing by Curator William Fitzhugh

"This room is devoted to primarily Ainu clothing, traditional Ainu clothing of the 18th, 19th, early 20th century. Much of it made with animal materials like fish hide or fish skin, but also with elm bark and materials processed from fibers of elm trees or thistle plants and other materials. Ainu women used a loom and they wove beautiful materials and their embroidery of these materials make some of the most spectacular designs of native clothing anywhere in the world."

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