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Walrus Ivory Sea Bird Rookery by Yupik Eskimo 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 stunning ivory Sea Bird Rookery was carved from a walrus ivory tusk 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 Russia.

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. He is the one of the eldest sons of the Soonagrook family of carvers. His father William sr., brothers Billy Boy, Moses and Ladd are well known carvers in Alaska. 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.

This beautiful Sea Bird Rookery or "Kaateghyiighaq" in the Siberian Yup'ik language was carved from the tusk of a walrus. Virgil carved this beautiful piece from an ivory tusk of a walrus. The center sponge like material and the ivory on the back of the piece is from where the tusk joins the skull. The center of the walrus tusk is a rich mottled gray/yellowish/tan texture while the outer portions are a smooth cream and pure white color. The individual birds were carved from the outer cream colored ivory.

In the Yupik Eskimo culture birds were spirit helpers, summoned by the shamans to bring gifts of the spirit. Frequently they were carved from ivory into amulets and adorned those who summoned the spirits. The presence of a bird during a ritual ceremony was considered a good sign. Their brightly colored feathers also adorn clothing and the puffin was also a source of food in the early spring.

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 acid based lemon oil, and avoid hot dry areas such as direct sun in a window or a heat register. Remember, our pet dogs, cats and birds like ivory also!

Virgil signed his first name and last initial on the bottom. The piece stands 2 3/4 inches high, 2 1/8 inches wide and 1 1/8 inches front to back.

This a real fine piece carved by a Native Yupik Eskimo carver from a very remote area of the US. It would make a great gift from Alaska or a nice addition to a collection.

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