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St. Lawrence Island

Home of the finest Eskimo Walrus Ivory Carvers in

Alaska




St. Lawrence Island (shown by the little red dot) is off the West coast of Alaska, just South of the Bering Straits, closer to Russia than the U.S. The island is about 100 miles long and 30 miles wide. The carvers I do business with live in Gambell, which is on the Northwest end of the island. Below is view of the village of Gambell from cliffs above it, its located out on the spit. It's a great place for birding, as there are strays and variants from Russia in the early Spring. On a clear day you can see the mountains of Russia and as the old saying goes "it's not quite the ends of the Earth but you have a clear view of it!"  In the summer Ive sat at this location watching whales, it's like a fishbowl. There are hundreds perhaps thousands of whales surfacing, blowing and breaching, a spectacular scene. Almost anywhere you look you see whales.



 

History

St. Lawrence Island has been inhabited intermittently for the past 2,000 years by Siberian Yup'ik Eskimos. In the 18th and 19th centuries, over 4,000 people inhabited the island in 35 villages. Sivuqaq is the Yup'ik name for the village and for the Island which means to ring out as ringing out a disk cloth. The City was renamed for Mr. and Mrs. Vene C. Gambell. A tragic famine between 1878 and 1880 decimated the population. In 1900, reindeer were introduced to the island for local use, and in 1903, President Roosevelt established a reindeer reservation. During the 1930s, some residents moved to Savoonga to establish a permanent settlement there. The City was incorporated in 1963. When the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed in 1971, Gambell and Savoonga decided not to participate, and instead opted for title to the 1.136 million acres of land in the former St. Lawrence Island Reserve. The island is jointly owned by Savoonga and Gambell.

Below is a view of the village from the airstrip, also note the cliffs the previous photo was taken from.



Below is my good friend Bill Soonagrook Sr., whom I met almost 20 years ago and started selling his beautiful carvings. He is accompanied by his dog - Malamut.



Most of the whalebone and Walrus Ivory are found on beaches washed up after storms or in the old village of Gambell, where it was buried for centuries.  Below are photos of bone piles in the old village of Gambell.  Lots of old walrus skulls and whale bone vertebrae.



Below are mostly walrus skulls.





Pile of whalebones...



...and more whalebones. These are the bones that support the massive head of a Bowhead Whale and the lower jawbone.





Below are some carvers digging up ivory and bones for carving.



Below is Ladd Soonagrook, a well known and very skilled carver from St. Lawrence Island.  He's working on his 4-wheeler.  There are no cars and trucks on the island, only 4-wheelers and Snow Machines.



Traditional Umiak Walrus skin boat, they are still used.  Below is a photo of the frame only, next photo shows the frame covered in walrus skin.



The walrus skin umiak was the traditional boat used for hunting walrus and whales.  They are made from the hide of female walrus as they are relatively soft and more flexible than the males.  When they approached a whale the Umiak was silent as when water and ice hit the sides of the boat they made no noise.



Life on St. Lawrence Island is about surviving the long cold winters.  Below are sections of insulated sewer pipe and water mains as the permafrost is very deep.  When I first went to the Island there was no running water or sewage systems, "honey pots" were the standard.