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Walrus Ivory Tooth Necklace Alaska Yupik Eskimo Art by Bill Soonagrook


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by William Soonagrook Sr. 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 Sr.

This very nice necklace piece was carved from a walrus molar tooth 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 Siberia.

William 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. His sons Moses, Ladd and Billy Boy are well known carvers in Alaska. Their work is featured the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Airport collection, the Wells Fargo Collection, in many public and private collections and the 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 (see "St. Lawrence Island" Page). 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.

"Aalqullghiik" - which is the married couple in the Siberian Yup'ik language. Bill is real proud of his "faces" series of carvings, each one is unique. The piece features a Yup'ik Eskimo man and woman. On the front side is the man and the other side is the woman. It was carved from a molar tooth of a walrus, behind the tusk. Bill prides himself in the detail. I asked Bill about the tooth carving, he called it a clan carving, like a family portrait. Later I talked to Bill's wife Virginia, and she said to me "I told Bill to stop putting me on those carvings, I don't like everyone to see me, but he still does". To which I responded and said "of course he puts you on there, you're the love of his life!" On the back side is his late wife Virginia.

In the Siberian Yup'ik culture the walrus was a source of food, tools and material for artwork and trading. The female hides were stretched over driftwood to make their boats called "umiaks". Walrus were generally hunted from "umiaks". The walrus is considered a bringer of good luck and happiness. The teeth and tusks were traded all along the coastal area of Alaska and south to California.

Care of 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 or a q-tip. A photo of Bill will accompany the piece. Bill signed his initials on the original biting surface or cusp of the tooth.

The piece measures 1 5/8 inches long, 1 inch wide and 3/4 inches thick. This is a very nice piece, rich in detail, truly unique. A very unusual necklace piece. It would be the subject of many questions and much admired and would make a real unique gift or nice addition to a collection. Something out of the ordinary from a very remote area for that real discerning buyer.

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