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Walrus Tooth Carving Yupik Carver William Soonagrook jr Gambell


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by William Soonagrook Jr.,
of St. Lawrence Island, North Bering Sea

St. Lawrence Island is located in the Bering Straits, about 140 miles off shore from Alaska and only 40 miles from Siberia. On a clear day (which is rare) you can see the mountains of Siberia. It’s one of the most remote places in the United States, closer to Russia than the U.S.

William Soonagrook Jr. lives in Gambell Alaska, a small Yup’ik Eskimo village of about 500 people on St. Lawrence Island in the North Bering Sea, just south of the Bering Straits. To his family he is known as “Billy Boy”. He is the youngest of the Soonagrook family of carvers. The Yup’ik people have occupied the Bering Straits for thousands of years. Billy carves from whale and walrus bone, both recent and fossil, ivory tusks and teeth from walrus and trims them with baleen from whales. His father, William Soonagrook Sr., brothers Ladd and Moses are all master carvers. The Soonagrook family carvings are featured in museums and displays around Anchorage, the Anchorage airport and featured in a book titled Ivory Carvers of the Bering Sea by Dale Kessler.

The harvesting of Bowhead Whales and Walrus is strictly regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A limited harvest of animals provides for a subsistence based culture while maintaining populations of marine mammals at healthy levels. Most ivory and whalebone is partially fossilized and found washed up on beaches after storms.

“Ramka”, which is the “clan” in the Siberian Yup’ik language. Billy is real proud of his “faces” series of carvings. Each one is unique and is carved from the molar tooth of a walrus, not the tusk. This particular piece is called the “Clan”. It features an entire Yup’ik Eskimo family all joined together by a Bowhead Whale. It’s a traditional family portrait in the medium that was available at the time.

In the Siberian Yup'ik culture the Bowhead whale was the preferred whale as it relatively docile when approached by hunters with spears. It was a source of food, tools and building materials. There are several old whalebone structures in the old village of Gambell still standing. The taking of a whale was a village affair, and was symbolic of the community of sharing. It took the cooperation of many to feed the village. Bowhead's spend most of their lives in the Arctic seas. They have a massive bone structure on their heads for breaking through the ice. There are approximately 10,000 to 12,000 Bowhead whales in the North Arctic Ocean, and they produce approximately 350 to 400 calves each year.

of ivory and tooth carvings includes an occasional light coating of baby oil, put it on a cloth first, avoid an acid based treatment such as lemon oil; and avoid hot dry areas such as direct sun in a window.

The piece measures 2 inches long, 3/4 inch wide and 5/8 inches thick.

This is a very unusual piece by a Siberian Yup'ik carver in a very remote area. Could be a Spirit Guide or a Shaman piece.

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