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Magic Weapons and the Art of Scrimshaw

by Murray Lundberg

      Far back into the seafogs of time, the carving of ivory has been a core feature of the culture of Alaska's Bering Sea Eskimo. Today, such carving offers a connection with their culture, as well as an income for hundreds of people.

      To live in this harsh land required an intimate realtionship with the land and all of its inhabitants. To the Eskimo, as with most aboriginal groups around the world, the spirit world was as real as the physical realm. They believed that each creature that shared their world possessed an inua, a spirit that was to a large degree independent of its host. When the earth was formed, these inua were able to take on a physical presence, and although that ability was eventually lost by most inua, those hosted by a particularly strong animal, or an Eskimo shaman, could still enter the physical realm at will, often seen as a "semi-human face on the breast of a bird or in the eye or fur of an animal." (Fitzhugh and Kaplan)

'We believe that people can live a life apart from real life', says an Inuit woman. The Inuit call their spirits 'Inua' which has been generally translated as 'owner' of nature, but it is owner in the metaphysical sense. An inua is an idea that dwells in and characterizes a particular physical phenomenon. As one Inuit put it, an inua is an 'essential existing force' of a physical phenomenon that causes it to be what it is. They are also beings, that is, they think, they have emotions and they act. Besides the inua, the Inuit also conceive of spirits. these are inherently malevolent and dangerous to people. They need to be exorcised, warded off, and assaulted, never venerated. Shamans may, however, gain control of such spirits and make them subservient. They can also be bound to amulets. Since in the Eskimo's world view, every person and animal has various spirits cohabitating, their sculptures time and time again reflect this conception of reality. Many works have various persons or spirits combined and agglomerated into one form, with two different representations on each. (Vera Britto)

      These inua were granted enormous respect, as they could direct their host animals either towards or away from a hunter. To offend the inua would doom a hunter and his family to starvation. One of the ways in which respect for the inua was shown was by using beautifully-crafted weapons - the more respect that went into crafting the knife, harpoon-head or other weapon, the more successful the hunter would be.

The hunter could also trick animals or subdue them by enlisting spiritual aid. He made his weapons from materials familiar and comforting to his prey, and he called on spirit-helpers by decorating his hunting equipment with images of his quarry's natural predators. This imparted the predator's strength, power, or swiftness to the hunter or his weapons.(Fitzhugh and Kaplan)

walrus tusk carving

      Among the many sources of ivory used by the Eskimo, the most important was, and is, the tusks of the walrus. The difference in the color of the ivory as it ages (over centuries) is dramatic, shifting from creamy white to soft hues of yellow and brown, and later to darker browns and even a blueish tint occasionally. Due to past abuses, the collection of ivory of all types, whether it be new walrus tusks or "fossilized" mastodon tusks, is now closely controlled in Alaska by the Fish & Wildlife Service.

      As whalers extended their ranges further and further into the Northern seas through the 18th and 19th Centuries, they of course came into contact with the native peoples, often for extended periods through the winters. Although I've seen scrimshaw described as a distinctly 'white' folk art, it seems more likely that the basics of this artform, with its incredible detail, was learned from the Eskimos during those long winters.

      Our knowledge of Bering Sea Eskimo culture at the time of Euro-American contact is fairly extensive. The Smithsonian Institution was able to gather an impressive collection of traditional ivory and other items as a result of the efforts of Edward W. Nelson, who was stationed at St. Michael with the U.S. Army Signal Service from 1877 until 1881. He travelled extensively, and his notes, photographs and collections have been exhibited widely.

      Modern ivory carvings can be found in a broad range of styles, and items ranging from accurate reproductions of traditional articles, to those intended for the tourist souvenir market. The majority of Alaska's traditional carvers live in Nome, and the Bering Sea islands of Saint Lawrence, Little Diomede and Nunivak. The works of carvers such as Walter Amos are represented in museums and private collections around the world.

References & Further Reading:
  • William W. Fitzhugh and Susan A Kaplan - Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo (Smithsonian, 1983)
  • Roger Schroeder & Steve Paszkiewicz - Scrimshaw : A Complete Illustrated Manual
  • Michael Mcmanus - A Treasury of American Scrimshaw (Penguin Studio, 1997)