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Arctic / Subarctic

Objects Collection Notes
(George Heye’s Legacy)
Contemporary Art

Along the coast of the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea—from Siberia, across Alaska and Canada, and east to Greenland—Yup´ik, Unangan, and Inuit peoples live in the most forbidding environment on earth. Their ability to survive depends upon their understanding of land, ocean, ice, and sky, and of animal behaviors—knowledge gained over thousands of years. For millennia, families exchanged goods and shared feasts and ceremonies with neighboring bands. By the 1700s, Native and non-Native traders were extending these chains of contact into the interior in response to European demand for furs. Whaling and prospecting brought further change to the region, as previously nomadic peoples established villages around the wintering sites of ships.

In the Subarctic—from Labrador to interior Alaska—Innu, Cree, Athapaskan, and other Native peoples’ hunted caribou and other game, fished, and preserved meat and hides. These proved to be marketable skills with French and English traders and trading companies. In the 1800s, people of mixed French and Native ancestry established distinct Métis communities in the region and created an exquisite new style of floral beadwork.

Native people continue to hunt on ice and snow using snowmobiles and GPS and are sought-after observers of climate change. Nunavut, the largest federal territory in Canada, speaks to the continuity and sustainability of Native communities in this region. Established in 1999 on the lands and islands north and west of Hudson Bay, Nunavut’s population of 30,000 is more than 80 percent Inuit.

George Heye’s Legacy: The Arctic and Subarctic

Heye’s Arctic collection includes ceremonial masks made by the Yup´ik of western Alaska. The masks were worn during dances to please animal spirits and ensure success in hunting. Each mask was worn once and discarded, its spiritual energy depleted. Heye acquired 55 Yup´ik masks from the Kuskokwim River trader A. H. Twitchell in 1919. He later sold 35 of the masks to a group of surrealist artists, including Max Ernst and André Breton.

Respect for the animal world is also evident in Heye’s Subarctic materials, some of which were assembled by Frank G. Speck, an anthropologist who collected objects from the Innu (Montagnais–Naskapi) of northeastern Labrador. Multiple pieces reflect hunters’ respect for the spirit of their prey, particularly caribou, an Innu mainstay. Designs on coats, leggings, and blankets, such as the one shown in this section, symbolize a desire to honor the spirit of the caribou, ensuring successful hunting. Click here to read more...

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Map of the Arctic and Subarctic
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