Object: Ivory Figurine

Walrus figurine
ca. 1958
United States: Alaska
Materials: Ivory and ink

This is an ivory carving made by Inuit artist in King Island, Alaska.  It was sold at an Eskimo craft shop in College, Alaska by a Mr. Charles Lucier, a graduate student of anthropology, to a Dr. Chance in 1958.  Scrimshaw is the art of carving discarded animal ivory.  It was popular with Inuit people and developed into a highly valued art form.   Early American whalers also practiced this art form as a means of using up idle time on ships between whaling ventures.  This carving is most likely made of discarded walrus ivory because of its prevalence in the King Island area and the time frame in which it was made.

Ivory carving has been practiced by people of  the Inuit culture and their ancestors since around 500 BCE.  Mostly useful items were carved from bone and ivory such as fish hooks, harpoon points, sewing needles, and snow goggles, but in the contemporary era (starting in the late 1940’s) the carving of figurines became more and more popular.  During this time there was an influx of contact between Inuit and Western people and there was a high demand for souvenir items.  Carvings such as this were a popular souvenir for sailors, fishermen, and visitors to the area.  The ivory used to make these figurines first came from discarded pieces naturally found on the beaches, but soon this resource ran out and it became necessary to hunt to obtain ivory.  In 1989, CITES (the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species) instated a ban on the trade of ivory and ivory objects. This caused the trade of objects like this to decline, but Inuit people still made carvings from soapstone, bone, and other materials.

These carvings and other forms of folk art became an important source of income to the Inuit people after WWII when Alaska was increasingly populated by westerners.  The traditional way of life for the Inuit became harder to maintain in the face of Western influence, but there are many traditions that remain in use today.  Fishing vessels made of animal akin are still in use as are dog sleds and the parka.  Without these items, living in the extreme climate of Alaska would be impossible.  Ivory, stone, and bone carving techniques have been handed down through generations and are just as important today as they were in prehistoric times. [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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