A Light in the Polar Night
The Arctic is a cold and hostile land, and amazingly has been inhabited for thousands of years. The environment coupled with the Eskimo world view has created a unique form of art which spans from mysterious and powerful to fun and whimsical.
Traditionally the word Eskimo has been used to encompass all native people living in the Arctic, including both Yupik and Inuit traditions. However, the word Eskimo translated means “eaters of raw meat”. Not fond of the term, Canadian Eskimos petitioned for a name change and in 1982 the Canadian government recognized this group as Inuit, meaning “the people”. Native Alaskans are still referred to as Eskimo, which again include both traditions.
Before there was a tourist market, Eskimo creativity could be seen on nearly all utilitarian items such as bow drill handles, ulus – a type of knife, harpoon points, weaving shuttles, and needle cases, among countless others. These items were often made of bone or walrus ivory and incised with circular geometrics, hunting vignettes, or scenes of native wildlife. Other forms of art appeared in ceremonial pieces such as masks and dance wands. These objects have eerie, supernatural qualities which are meant to invoke the inua or spirits of ancestors or animals killed in the hunt.
American whaling ships traveled to the Arctic starting in the mid-19th century causing a shift in the native economies. Sailor-like scrimshaw combined with traditional forms created an era of curios which today are highly collectable. Visitors clamored to buy the small, fanciful crafts which dominated the streets of Nome. Walrus tusk cribbage boards, ivory butter knife sets, toothpicks, and hors d’oeuvre forks, baskets in the form of oil lamps, and other Victorian-style commodities flooded the market.
Eskimo Carved Buttons - sold for $3,000.
Ethnologists and missionaries venturing into this unforgiving environment returned with other forms of art, focusing more on the traditional culture. Wooden masks, hunting gear, snuff boxes, pipes and other utilitarian objects were taken and brought back to museums around the country, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and Field Museum in Chicago.
Early Eskimo art has seen a jump in collectiblity over the years. Although some pieces are still reasonably priced, other items a collector will pay thousands of dollars for. Curio pieces such as Nunivak carved walrus tusks are among some of the most popular. These carvings are typically decorated with fat little seals and fish swimming around each other without a care in the world in the wings, some large toothy animal is waiting for a snack. At auction, a Nunivak tusk can bring between $7000-$10,000. Baleen baskets, another well-liked form, are often finished with an ivory carved finial and can range in price from $200-$1500, depending on age, size, and detail.
In a land of the Polar Night, Eskimo art is a beacon of light and creativity found in no other place. To collectors it is a reminder of the harsh conditions that a people have struggled and survived in for centuries.
Currently at the National Museum of Natural History, there is a temporary exhibit "Yuungnapqiallerput (The Way We Genuinely Live): Masterworks of Yup'ik Science and Survival". It is viewable from April 17- July 25, 2010.