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Ship carving

Iñupiaq ship carving
ca. 1880–1910
Point Barrow, Alaska
Ivory, sinew
30 x 5 x 15 cm

The Native peoples of Arctic North America and Siberia have carved walrus ivory for about 2,000 years. Early carvings were usually tools, some with artistic designs, and figurines that may have had religious significance. When European and American whalers sailed to the Alaskan Arctic in the mid-19th century, Iñupiat and Yupiit started selling their ivory carvings as souvenirs. Between 1848 and 1910, when commercial whaling came to an end in the western Arctic, there were approximately 2,100 annual whaling ship cruises, according to the research of John Bockstoce. Bockstoce states that the lure of profits by having early access to the bowhead led a few whaling ships to overwinter at various places in the Chukchi Sea beginning in 1858 and continuing off and on through the mid-1890s.1 The carver of this ship would most likely have been quite familiar with the sight of whaling ships.

The artist carved the hull and railing for this model whaling ship from one large piece of tusk and then attached several pieces of ivory for the sails, masts, rudder, and other parts on the ship, showing great attention to detail. Such a carving, made from rather large pieces of ivory, would be unusual today. The decline of sea ice due to climate change makes hunting walrus harder for the Iñupiaq and Yup´ik, and ivory is now in short supply. Climate change may also adversely affect walrus populations, which depend on moving sea-ice floes to gain access to the clams they eat. Today’s carvers tend to create smaller figurines to make the most of the tusks they do have.

—Deanna Paniataaq Kingston (King Island Iñupiaq), associate professor of anthropology, Oregon State University

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  1. Bockstoce, Whales, Ice & Men.
  • Bockstoce, John. Whales, Ice & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic. Seattle: University of Washington, 1986.