Archive for the 'Arctic' Category

Object: Necklace

Baffinland Inuit
North America: Canada: Baffin Island
prior to 1959
Materials: Glass, bone, ivory, beak or claw, and cord

This trade bead necklace has been attributed to the Baffinland Inuit tribe from Baffin Island, Canada. The Baffinland Inuit are one of the groups that make up the Central Eskimo, along with the Copper, Iglulik, Netsilik, and Caribou Inuit. Baffinland Inuit, like other Inuit groups, traditionally lived in semi-permanent winter settlements. These winter settlements served as a hub for smaller seasonal camps that were utilized for hunting, fishing and gathering of specific materials throughout the warmer months of the year. Marine animals like seals, beluga whales, walrus, narwhal, and polar bear were important year round resources for the Inuit people. While in the summer, caribou, birds (and eggs), small game, berries, roots, and shellfish were also available. Today, the Baffinland Inuit live in six main communities: Iqaluit, Pangnirtung, Qikiqtarjuaq (formerly Broughton Island), Clyde River, Kimmirut (formerly Lake Harbour) and Cape Dorset.

This necklace, like other traditional Inuit arts and crafts, is made of bone and ivory from marine animals. In addition to these traditional materials this necklace also features large glass trade beads. Glass beads were first introduced to native North Americans by European explorers. Prior to European contact tribal groups had been making beads from bone, shell, stone, and other materials for many years. Early glass trade beads came mostly from Venice and Holland, later Poland and Czechoslovakia also became major trade bead manufacturing hubs. Trade in glass beads was very common throughout North America, with blue beads being particularly prized. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Ivory Harpoon

Harpoon Head
North America: Alaska
Ca. 20th Century
Materials: Ivory

Harpoon heads have been a key component to survival for indigenous people since around 500 AD.  This particular head is made out of walrus ivory with a crevice at the tip of the head for a metal or stone point and a hole in the center for a line attachment.  The design of this head is commonly referred to as a toggling head design which refers to the ability of the harpoon head to rotate once inserted into the animal’s skin to ensure that the line remains embedded.

Whaling is a long-standing tradition distinct to Inuit communities that reinforces concepts of kinship and sustainability.  The specific design of whaling harpoons are passed down by males in the same kinship group. Whaling is organized by kinship networks of hunting crews who use wooden canoes and search for breathing holes to find bowhead whales. Once the whales have been spotted, hunters thrust their harpoons into the whales. The whales do not die immediately, so the hunters follow them using a system of buoys attached to the harpoon heads until the whale becomes exhausted. Once the whale dies, the whale carcass is taken to shore where kinship groups extract and distribute the meat, fat, and bones for food and tools. This process is known as flensing. Cultural beliefs require that every part of the whale be utilized as a means of honoring the spirits.

Whaling has received much criticism in recent years by the governing powers of North America and environmental organizations that have become concerned about the preservation of endangered whales.  By 1970s, the International Whaling Commission successfully banned the act of whaling due to the impact the commercial whaling industry at that time had on whale populations.  However, the ban largely ignored the significance of whaling in Inuit culture. In response to indigenous movements, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) was created in 1976 as a means of preserving the cultural practice of subsistence whaling among Inuit communities. Since 1981, Inuit groups participating in the AEWC Commission have worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service to come up with an annual quota of bowhead whales that are allowed to be hunted. For example, in 2008, 67 whales were permitted to be killed among the 10 Inuit whaling groups in Alaska.

[Benjamin Norrick]

Object: Snow Goggles

Inuit: Ivory Snow Goggles
North America, Arctic Coast
Materials: Ivory

These are Inuit snow goggles made of ivory and heavily weathered.  They are made in the traditional style with thin slits for eye holes.  These were worn to help cut out the glare that reflected from the sun off of the snow preventing snow blindness. This type of goggle is an example of the ingenious adaptive measures taken by Inuit people for life in the arctic that astonished westerners.  There are some examples of this type of goggle much more heavily decorated and intricately carved, but this utilitarian example shows the basic functionality of such a useful invention.  Similar technology has been utilized by NASA in space travel to reduce the risk of photokeratitis, the scalding of the cornea from exposure to bright light, when working in space.

Snow goggles were made of wood, ivory, bone, and antler and were tied using string or sinew.  They fit tightly to the wearers head to block out all light but what was coming through the small slits in the front.  The inside of the goggles were often blackened with soot to further minimize glare. The goggles helped focus vision like a permanent squint while blocking out harmful rays.  Some of the oldest of this type of goggle are dated 2000 years ago in the Old Bering Sea culture area, the western coast of Alaska.  These people were the ancestors to the Inuit or Thule culture.  Snow goggle technology was passed down to the Inuit culture and traveled with them to Canada around 800 years ago during the “Little Ice Age”, a sudden and prolonged drop in regional temperatures forcing the Inuit further south.

Snow goggles along with specialized hunting tools, weapons, fishing boats, protective clothing, living structures, and diets all exhibit cold weather adaptations that allowed the Inuit people to survive and thrive in an area considered uninhabitable to most people on earth.  These adaptations  were a result of thousands of years of trial and error leading to revelations in technology that intensified ease of living in the arctic climate. Through tradition and practice, Inuit people have adapted to these extreme climates and certain physical differences have emerged as a result of this. The ability to survive on a mainly protein based diet with little or no vegetation is one of the main physical adaptations they have adopted.  Tolerance of extreme temperatures is another.  This is accomplished through increased blood flow to the extremities that prevents frostbite. In combination with clothing and dwelling styles that intensify warm air circulation, survival in arctic temperatures is feasible.

[Katrina Kassis]

Object: Fish Hook

Pacific Inuit: Fish Hook
North America, Arctic Coast
20th century
Materials: Wood, Iron

This object is a Pacific Inuit halibut hook made primarily of wood with a barb made of iron. The pieces of this hook are bound together with thin string and part of the line is still attached. The hook measures approximately eleven inches long and has finger-like carvings on the side with the line attached to it. This type of hook was used only by the Pacific Inuit tribes Koniagmiut and Chugach living in the western Alaskan coastal regions. The fish that this type of hook was used to catch can range from two pounds in weight to 450 lbs, but the average size is around 20-30 lbs. Halibut is the largest of the flat fish and is very challenging to catch. Halibut has been a staple for many Alaskan native people for thousands of years and is still commonly caught for food. Halibut is also very popular around the world and populations have drastically decreased as a result of overfishing. Because of this Halibut has been considered for placement on the Endangered Species list.

Fish hooks of this kind have been found in the Pacific-Aleut Culture Area encompassing the Aleutian Islands and Southern Alaska as far back as 1000 B.C. all the way to modern times. The Pacific Aleut culture is a subtradition of the Eskimo tradition and displayed gradually increasing divergence caused by environmental and regional differences. As the two groups separated geographically the differences between the two cultures increased as did the language differences. Their material culture also reflected the divergence. Because the Pacific Aleut settled in the southerly regions there was more tree growth and access to wood was far greater than in the arctic regions. During the late prehistoric period and into the historic period the Eskimo culture group was heavily influenced by the tribes of the Northwest Coast. Many of their material culture styles carried over including ground-slate weapons and tools, stone effigy carvings, and the use of labret piercings to delineate gender and status. The Chaluka midden archaeological site, dating around 1000 B.C., on the Aleutian Islands demonstrates the transition of PreEskimo culture to Eskimo tradition and the Kachemak Bay I site on mainland Alaska, dating around 750 B.C., demonstrates the emergence of the Pacific Aleut subtradition out of the Eskimo tradition. This site includes rectangular semi-subterrainian houses built up with stone, whale bone, or wood with central fireplaces dating from the late phases.

A predecessor of this fish hook would have been used in the late phases around A.D. 1700 and later. During this time the Pacific Aleut culture group was focused mainly on sea hunting and fishing, but also procured food from land hunting and gathering. The most used hunting gear included stone and bone projectile points and knives, bone toggle harpoons, and the barbed bone dart with a slate blade and a tang hole for attaching the line. Bone and wood composite hooks like this one with perforated stone sinkers were also commonly found. Woodworking was very commonly practiced in the Pacific Aleut culture group and many woodworking tools have been found. Compared to the Eskimo culture group, the Pacific Aleut had a heavy emphasis on woodworking skills. The Eskimo group had more of an emphasis on bone and ivory carving during this time that is still projected today.

[Katrina Kassis]

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]

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]

Object: Ivory Bracelet

Ivory Bracelet
ca. 1940s – 1950s
United States: Alaska
Materials: Ivory and elastic

Ivory carved jewelry such as this detailed bracelet were common as souvenirs made by northern Inuit people in the early half of the last century.  This bracelet depicts a dog team with a sled, a rider and ten dogs intricately carved and painted.  The sections of the bracelet are made of white and mottled pieces of walrus ivory, the mottled ivory coming from the interior of the tusk.  The bracelet is strung on elastic thread which was commonly used in jewelry in the 1940’s and 50’s.

Ivory carvings of the Inuit people often depict animals and have historically been linked with shamanistic hunting rituals.  This tradition carried over into the souvenir trade that erupted in the 1940’s.  Animal depictions, though not linked to hunting ritual when used in jewelry or figurines for souvenirs, were still the main form of ivory, bone and stone carvings made.  The sled dog team is an important aspect of the Inuit culture and is thus depicted quite often in carvings.  Trained sled dogs made it possible for groups and individuals to travel long distances over arctic terrain to follow game or to relocate seasonally.  Dog teams were essential in guarding reindeer herds and hauling equipment and supplies. In 1896, during the Alaskan Gold Rush, sled dog teams made it possible for prospectors to travel in the icy tundra.  In the early 1920’s dog sled races became very popular and the famous Iditarod Race was born. This particular bracelet is from the Diomede Islands in the middle of the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska.

The inhabitants of these islands were relocated so close to Russia that a Russian military base could be built on the larger of the two islands, but a small population famous for their ivory carvings still remains on the smaller island in a the City of Diomede located on the westernmost coast. Carved ivory from this area is mostly sold in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, but is also sold through art auctions. [Katrina Kassis Swihart]

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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