Object: Labret & Crochet Needle

E/1991/2/1
North Alaska Inuit, Alaska, United States
Material: Focalized Walrus Ivory

E/57/24/3
North Alaska Inuit, Alaska, United States
Materials: Walrus Ivory

The labret from Northwest Alaska is made of fossilized walrus ivory. Its date of origin is unknown but it was donated to the museum by James “Barney” Gibbs in 1991. Many men and women in Inupiat tribes wore a labret called a Tootuk or Tutu. Traditionally the larger the labret, the higher rank in the family, and between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two Inupiat people have their lower lips pierced under each corner of their mouth for labrets. When pierced, sharp-pointed pieces of ivory are put in, and after healing the hole is gradually stretched to half an inch in diameter. Labrets are made from coal, ivory, and glass stoppers obtained from ships.The Inupiat are the people of Alaska‘s Northwest Arctic and North Slope boroughs of the Bering Straits region. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the Inupiat population in the United States is around 19,000 and most of them live in Alaska.

The crochet hook from northern Alaska is made from walrus tusk and added pigment. The Tlingit are indigenous people to the Pacific Northwest Coast. This piece came to the museum as part of an exchange with Mabee Gerrer Museum at St. Gregory’s College in 1957; although its date of origin is unknown. The crochet hook is an important tool necessary to the survival of the Tlingit people. They used sinew, for thread and needles made of bone, antler, or ivory; with these materials they made fur and skinclothing that helped them to survive freezing Arctic winters. The crochet method is actually a European tradition, and the Tlingit people fashioned these hooks to sell or trade with foreign whalers to either use in their down time or send home to their wives. The Tlingit’s first foreign contact was with Russian explorers in 1741, then again with Spanish explorers in 1775. The Tlingit were able to maintain their independence but suffered great losses to smallpox and other infectious disease brought by the Europeans. The labret and crochet hook you see here are made of ivory from the walrus tusk. In the beliefs of Arctic Native hunting cultures the walrus is one of the most respected natural predators (along with the polar bear). Hunters must have respect for the walrus and try to kill them in a humane manner. The walrus population is now only about 250,000 in the world. Pacific walruses number more than 200,000 currently. The Pacific walrus population has been drastically reduced by hunting several times in the past. Recently their numbers have rebounded after these severe reductions. Check out this cool video on the walrus below.

Work Cited
Brower, Harry Lr. and Hepa, Taqulik.
1998  Subsistence Hunting activities and the Inupiat Eskimo. http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/united-states/subsistence-hunting-activities-and-inupiat-es
Inupiat of Arctic Alaska. http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/HistoryCulture/Inupiat/
National Park Service
2014  Inupiat Heritage Center. http://www.nps.gov/inup/index.htm
Onboard Infromatics
2013  Barrow, Alaska. http://www.city-data.com/city/Barrow-Alaska.html
[Travis Chilbert]

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