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Walrus Ivory Tusk Totem by Yupik Eskimo Carver Virgil Soonagrook AK


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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 totem 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.

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.

The Hunter - This beautiful totem depicts the hunter; or "Ivaghniighta" in the Siberian Yup'ik language. Virgil carved this beautiful piece from an ivory tusk of a walrus. It's a hunter standing on a Beluga Whale on a Walrus and united by a Bowhead Whale on the left side. 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. This Hunter is very rich in texture and color. The rich mottled center of the tusk can be seen on the front of the piece on the front of the hunter. The outer cream surrounds the center and the pure white can be seen on the sides. The eyes are inlaid baleen; a fibrous black material in the mouth of Bowhead Whales, they strain food through it. The spear shaft is baleen and it's tipped with an ivory point. There are fine black lines or temperature cracks on the upper part of the piece. Temperature cracks are caused when the walrus was hauled out and sunning on a beach in life, warming their bodies and tusks, then plunging back into the cold arctic sea. There tusks develop surface cracks and are stained black by minerals in sea water, adding to the richness of the carving. It's mounted on an Ooziva with an ivory pin. An Ooziva is a backbone disk from a bowhead whale, equivalent to our backbone disk. Traditionally these were carved into dishes, seal oil lamps and spirit masks.

The story behind the piece is about 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 and their culture and continues today. The times of the year offer a variety of hunting. Bowhead and Beluga whales and walrus in the spring and fall, and seals in the summer and fall. The traditional hunting weapon was the spear, and this shows the traditional point that detaches when it is imbedded in an animal.

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 the back top of the base. The ivory stands 12 inches high, 1 3/8 inches wide and 1 3/4 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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