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Bone Shaman Spirit Walrus by Yupik Eskimo Carver Moses Soonagrook AK


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by Moses Soonagrook of St. Lawrence Island, North Bering Sea

Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft. It was carved and significantly transformed from marine mammal walrus ivory and jawbone into Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft and signed by Alaska Native Eskimo artist Moses Soonagrook.

This unusual transformer Shaman walrus was carved from walrus ivory and the lower jawbone of a walrus by Moses Soonagrook of Gambell, Alaska, a small Siberian Yup'ik Eskimo village of about 700 people on St. Lawrence Island, just south of the Bering Straits. Their language is spoken on both the U.S. and Russian side of the straits. It's about 140 miles off shore from Nome Alaska, and about 40 miles from Russia. On a clear day (which is rare) you can see the mountains of Russia.

Moses has carved for many years and is a master carver. He carves from ivory tusks of walrus, walrus bone and whalebone, and trims them with baleen from Bowhead whales. He is the eldest son of the Soonagrook family of carvers. His father William sr., brothers Billy Boy and Ladd are well known carvers in Alaska. His son Robert is learning to carve. Their work is featured the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Airport collection and in many public, private collections and featured in a book titled "Eskimo Carvers of the Bering Sea" by Dale Kessler.

Much walrus ivory, walrus bone and whalebone are either dug up or found washed up on beaches after storms. Carving is a rich tradition for the Native Alaskan people on St. Lawrence Island, it helps sustain their proud culture and way of life in a very remote and harsh area.

“Keretkun”, in the Siberian Yup'ik language, the Chukchi Master of the Sea (Spirit Walrus). This is a fine and powerful traditional carving depicting the transformation of the spirit of the Yup’ik hunter and the walrus; or in the days of the Shaman, the “Keretkun”. Upon the death of a powerful hunter his spirit would enter the walrus. The head was carved from walrus ivory. The body was carved from an old walrus jawbone found in the old village of Gambell. It was buried for centuries and took on a rich tan patina. The jawbone is a dense bone and makes a great medium for carving. The spear is made from baleen of the Bowhead Whale, and tipped with a walrus ivory point. The line is sinew from a seal. Baleen is a fibrous black material found in the mouth of Bowhead Whales, they strain food through it. When I first met Moses a few years ago, I realized he puts himself into his carvings, it’s actually a mini self portrait.

In the Siberian Yup'ik culture the walrus was a source of food, tools and material for artwork and trading. The female hides were stretched over driftwood to make their boats called "umiaks". In the old days Walrus were generally hunted from "umiaks". Walrus will defend themselves and the herd will come to rescue a hunted walrus. Individual walrus were driven ashore with the aid of a baleen clapper, or flat piece of baleen they would slap the ocean surface with, which sounded like an Orca (Killer Whale), the enemy of the walrus. The walrus would seek land, where the hunters waited. The walrus is considered a bringer of good luck and happiness.

Care of ivory includes avoiding extremes in temperature change; give it an occasional light coating of baby oil or mineral oil, put it on a cloth or a Q-tip, avoid an acid based treatment such as lemon oil, and avoid hot dry areas such as direct sun in a window or a heat register.

Moses signed the bottom, a photo of Moses will be included with the piece. The  piece measures 3 1/2 inches long and the spear extends an additional 1 1/4 inches from the head, 1 1/6 inch wide, and 1 1/4 inches high. This a real fine piece from a very remote area and a powerful depiction of the transformer. It would make a great gift from Alaska or a nice addition to a collection. Could be a Spirit Guide?

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