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Walrus Ivory Hunter Alaska Yupik Native Carver Virgil Soonagrook


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

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

This beautiful returning Eskimo hunter was carved from the tusk of a walrus by Virgil 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 Siberia.

Virgil 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. Much walrus ivory and whalebone is 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 rich and proud culture and way of life in a very remote and harsh area.

"Tumigte" - which is the "Returning Hunter" in the Siberian Yup'ik language. Virgil is real proud of his carvings, each one is unique. This unique hunter was carved from an ivory tusk found in the old village of Gambell. The center of the tusk is a rich mottled texture while the outer portions are a smooth cream and pure white color. The mottled center of the tusk can be seen on the side of the head and neck, the outer cream makes up the body. The knife and sheath and spear shaft are carved baleen, a fibrous black material found in the mouth of Bowhead whales, they strain food through it. The tip of the spear is a "walrus whisker". "Walrus whiskers" are actually the bristle whiskers from the snout of a walrus which are sensory organs for finding clams and crabs on the sea floor. There are faint black lines or temperature cracks on the back side of the piece. Temperature cracks are caused when the walrus was hauled out in life and sunning on a beach, warming their bodies and tusks, then plunging back into the cold arctic sea. Their tusks develop surface cracks and are stained black by minerals in the sea water, adding to the richness of the carving. Its mounted on a seal vertebrate.

The Siberian Yup'ik people have lived in the Bering Straits for thousands of years. This harsh Arctic region is an extremely challenging area to live in, yet there is an abundance to be had from the land and sea. Hunting and gathering were the basis of survival and their culture and continues today. The times of the year offer a variety of hunting. This piece depicts the returning hunter from a trip across the Bering Straits. After a long and hazadous hunting trip on the sea ice it was a joy to return to the warmth of family and village life as can be seen in the expression on his face.

Care of walrus ivory includes avoiding hot dry locations, such as direct sun in a window or a heat register. Give it an occasional light coating of mineral oil or baby oil, put it on a cloth first.

Virgil signed his first name and last initial on the bone base. The piece measures 3 7/8 inches high, the hunter is 1 1/8 inches wide. It's a nice piece and would make a real unique gift or nice addition to a collection.

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