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Inuit Figures

These carved figures and the baleen box were made before 1500. To maintain the power of the amulets, the Inuit kept representations of land and sea mammals, along with the weapons used to hunt them, in separate places.
Artic region, Inuit, Figures, before 1500, baleen, wood, ivory

This photograph was taken in 1928 by the famous American photographer Edward Curtis. The Inuit artist is using a basic metal tool to carve designs on a large walrus tusk.
The Ivory Carver,Nunivak, Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian, vol. 20.


key idea
Ivory carving has been practiced by the Inuit for over 2,000 years.

The animal figurines we are focusing on were carved in the late 1800s, but another ivory set in the museum’s collection was made sometime before 1500. Archaeologists—scientists who study objects to learn about people from the past—have found ivory carvings in Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic that date from more than 2,000 years ago. Today, some Inuit continue the ivory-carving tradition carried on for so long by their ancestors.

Traditionally, only Inuit men were allowed to carve objects out of ivory, bone, and wood, but now some Inuit women carve, too. Ivory items like these were generally made from walrus tusks and carved with a sharp stone or metal tool. Usually, a sculptor would be inspired to make figure and just start carving, without making any sketches first. He might indicate the basic outline with a few guide marks.

Artists found their inspiration in daily life and the natural world around them. Often they based their work on older carvings. For example, the two sets of figures shown here, though created at least four hundred years apart, include many of the same animals. But there are some important differences. The figures in the later set have a lot of detail, making them easy to identify. The earlier ivory figures are more abstract. Their shapes and sizes, rather than any specific marks, suggest what kind of animal or person they are meant to be.

The two figurine sets were also made for different reasons. The earlier one probably served ceremonial and hunting purposes, helping Inuit men find animals and protecting them from fierce ones like the walrus. However, the 1800s set was meant for sale to non-Inuit people.

April 2007