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Walrus Ivory Shaman Seal & Polar Bear Claw, Virgil Soonagrook, Alaska


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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 and Polar Bear Claw into Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft and signed by Alaska Native Eskimo artist Virgil Soonagrook.

This unusual transformer seal was carved from a walrus ivory tusk and mounted on a Polar Bear Claw 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.

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”, the Chukchi Master of the Sea (Spirit Seal). This is a fine and powerful traditional carving depicting the transformation of the spirit of the Yup’ik hunter and the seal; or in the days of the Shaman, the “Keretkum”. Upon the death of a powerful hunter depending on his clan, his spirit would enter the seal. This piece was carved from walrus ivory found in the old village of Gambell. The center of the tusk is a mottled very light golden tan color, while the outer portions consists of cream to pure white, hence the color variations. The spear is made from baleen from Bowhead Whale, and tipped with an ivory point. Baleen is a fibrous black material found in the mouth of Bowhead Whales, they strain food through it. The ivory human form is mounted on a Polar Bear Claw with a baleen tail fluke.

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. The piece is mounted on a walrus tusk from the end of the tusk which joins with the skull, it's hollow.

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.

Virgil signed his initials on the bottom. The piece measures 2 3/8 inches high, the seal is 1 inch wide and 4 inches from tip of the spear to the tail fluke. 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 your Spirit Guide?

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