Objects: Ivory and Baleen Bracelets

E/1959/8/56 & E/1959/8/58b
ca. 1920s -1950s
United States: Alaska
Materials: Ivory, baleen, and elastic

The first ivory and baleen bracelet (E/1959/8/56) is carved with depictions of a whale, a polar bear, a seal and a walrus.  The second bracelet (E/1959/8/58b) has twelve carved links depicting a man in a parka driving a dog sled team. They were likely made by the inhabitants of Diomede Island, a small island between the western coast of Alaska and the eastern coast of Siberia where there is a small Inuit population.  One of the most famous aspects of this culture is their talent in carving ivory, bone, and stone.  Many of the carvings made here have been exported all over the world with the major hubs of trade being at Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska.  Bracelets like these were produced between 1920 and 1950 as souvenir items.

The materials for these bracelets were collected from the northern right whale which was extensively hunted by the Inuit during this time.  Today the northern right whale is the rarest of all large whales with populations numbering in the hundreds.  They are very near extinction and live only on the eastern coast on North America and the western coast of Europe today.  The Right Whale was named by whalers identifying it as the “right” whale to kill on a hunt.  Its products were used all over Europe and North America in the 1800’s and 1900’s when whaling was at its heyday.  These included oil and baleen that were used for lamps and  bone corsets, buggy whips, jewelry and other uses. Today they are protected by an international ban on whaling, but their populations have seen little recovery since it was instated in 1949. Because of this, objects like these are not produced anymore in the Diomede region, but stone and bone are used instead to carry on the carving traditions.  In art auctions, these carvings are very highly prized and are still bought by enthusiasts all over the world bringing in a substantial income for the people of Diomede Island. [Katrina Kassis Swihart]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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