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Walrus Ivory Seal Hunter by Yupik Artist Billy Boy Soonagrook Alaska


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by William ("Billy Boy") Soonagrook Jr. 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 William Soonagrook Jr.

This very unusual piece was carved from the tusk of a walrus by William (Billy Boy) Soonagrook Jr. 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 Siberian Yup'ik 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 has carved for many years and is a master carver. He is the youngest son of the Soonagrook family of carvers. His father William Sr., brothers Moses and Ladd are well known carvers in Alaska. He carves from ivory tusks of walrus, walrus bone and whalebone, and trims with baleen from Bowhead whales. His carvings are featured in a book titled Eskimo Carvers of the Bering Sea, by Dale Kessler.

Much walrus ivory, walrus bone and whalebone are 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 ancient culture and way of life in a very remote and harsh area.

This stunning piece is called the Ice Hunter or "Mughute" in the Siberian Yup'ik language. It's a great example of Alaskan Native art and was carved from the tusk of a walrus. The center of the tusk is a mottled light gold/tan color, the outer portions are a cream to pure white colored ivory, hence the color variations. The mottled center can be seen on the left side of the hunter and seal, the body is cream colored. There are several faint black lines or temperature cracks on the edge of the ice beneath the hunter. Temperature cracks are caused when the walrus was hauled out and sunning on a beach, warming their bodies and tusks, then plunging back into the cold arctic sea. There tusks develop surface cracks and minerals in the sea water stain them black, adding to the richness and authenticity of the carving. The spear shaft is baleen and the eyes of the seal are inlaid baleen. Baleen is a fibrous material found in the mouth of Bowhead Whales, they strain food through it. The spear point is ivory and the line is sinew from seal gut.

The story behind the piece is about the dream of the hunt and the abundance of the land and sea to provide for food, clothing and shelter. 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 in their culture and continues today. The foundation of the Siberian Yup’ik culture and way of life is hunting, hunting seals, walrus and  bowhead whales. When I first met William Sr., I asked him if they fish, and in no uncertain terms he sternly told me “we are hunters and not fisherman, we hunt whale, walrus, and seals!”  This scene depicts one of many way of hunting seals. Standing on the ice waiting for a seal to come to his breathing hole. A real test of stamina and patience. Eskimo myths are full of stories of the hunt.

In the Yup'ik culture the seal represented the feminine aspect of life and human nature, the gentle and caring, deeply intuitive, a trait that is the foundation for lasting leadership. Seals were hunted for oil, meat and hides. The hides were made into floats and attached to a spear. The Yup'ik hunter would glide silently in their kayak up to a “U.ttug” or “seal basking on the ice”. The head of the spear would detach and the seal would be kept afloat with the seal air bag.
Care of ivory includes avoiding hot dry locations, such as direct sun in a window or a heat register. Remember, our pet dogs, cats and birds also like and ivory carvings!

Billy Boy signed his name on the bottom. The ivory portion stands 5 1/4 inches high; 1 1/2 inches wide at the base and 3/4 inches thick.
This is a stunning piece and would make a great addition to a collection or a nice very unique gift for someone with an eye for something really unusual from one of the most remote areas of the U.S.

It's a great piece, Buy it now!