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Eskimo Curlew by Yupik Eskimo Carver William Soonagrook Sr.


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by William Soonagrook sr. of St. Lawrence Island, North Bering


Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft. It was carved and significantly transformed from old whalebone into Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft and signed by Alaska Native Eskimo artist William Soonagrook sr.

This stunning Eskimo Curlew was carved from an old whalebone by William Soonagrook Sr. 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.

William Sr. has carved for many years and is a master carver. He carves from ivory tusks and teeth of walrus, walrus
bone and whalebone, and trims them with baleen from Bowhead whales. His sons Moses, Ladd, and Billy Boy are also master carvers. The Soonagrook family carvings are displayed in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, and various private collections in Anchorage and featured in a book titled Ivory Carvers of St. Lawrence Island. 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 Yup'ik people on St. Lawrence Island, it helps sustain their ancient proud culture and way of life in a very remote and harsh area.

Eskimo Curlew or "Pagunghaq" which is curlew in the Siberian Yup'ik language. This very nice piece was carved from
the forward fluke bone of a whale, like a finger bone, probably a Bowhead. It was found in the old village of Gambell, and was buried for centuries and took on a light tan patina. It's a very dense bone and makes a nice carving medium. It's mounted on an Oozeva, a backbone disk from a bowhead whale, equivalent to our backbone disk. Traditionally these were carved into dishes, seal oil lamps and spirit masks. The eyes, bill and legs are inlaid baleen, a fibrous black material found in the mouths of Bowhead whales, they strain food through it.

In the Siberian Yup'ik culture birds were spirit helpers, summoned by the Shaman to bring gifts of the spirit. Birds
were carved into amulets and their feathers adorned the clothing of those who summoned the spirits. The presence of a bird during a ritual was a good omen, and a sign of good things to come. Birds were also a source of food, and their eggs came at a time when food was in short supply, early spring.

The Eskimo Curlew was hunted to extinction around the turn of the century, there has not been a confirmed sighting
in over 50 years. At one time the vast flocks turned the sky black with millions of birds. I personally accompanied an avid birder to an area north of Nome, Alaska, where there had been reported sightings of the Eskimo Curlew, we saw lots of curlews but we could not confirm the subtle markings of the Eskimo Curlew.

Care of bone includes avoiding hot dry locations, such as direct sun in a window or a heat register. Give it
an occasional very light coating of baby oil or mineral oil, put it on a cloth first or a q-tip, avoid an acid based oil such as lemon oil.

Bill's signature is on the bottom. The piece stands 8 3/8 inches high, the bone body is 6 inches long and 2 1/8 inches
wide, its bill is 5 inches long. The legs detach for shipping. This is a very elegant piece. It would make a great gift for a birder or collector or anyone with an eye for the unusual.

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