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Whalebone Polar Bear, Nanuq, by James Uglowook Alaska Yupik Eskimo Art


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by James Uglowook of St. Lawrence Island, North Bering Sea

Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft. It was carved and significantly transformed from marine mammal whalebone into Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft and signed by Alaska Native Eskimo artist James Uglowook.

This fine walking Polar Bear was carved from the vertebrate of a whale by James Uglowook of Gambell, Alaska, a small Yup'ik Eskimo village of about 700 people on St. Lawrence Island, just south of the Bering Straits. Their native language is spoken on both the Russian and U.S. sides 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.

James has carved for many years and is a master carver. He carves from ivory tusk of walrus and whalebone and trims them with baleen, a fibrous material from the mouth of Bowhead whales, they strain food through it. His work is featured in the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, the Wells Fargo Collection and in the book titled "Eskimo Carvers of the Bering Sea". Much ivory and whalebone is dug up or found washed up on beaches after storms. Carving is a rich tradition for the Native People on St. Lawrence Island; it helps sustain their proud culture and way of life in a very remote and harsh area.

Polar Bear - This beautiful Polar Bear, or "Nanuq" in the Siberian Yup'ik language, is a fine example of Yup'ik art. This carving shows subtle colors and rich texture of whalebone. It was a large vertebrate probably from a bowhead whale. The eyes are inlaid baleen, a fibrous black material in the mouth of bowhead whales, they strain food through it. The bone was found in the old village of Gambell; it was buried for centuries.

The Polar Bear was symbolic of a powerful hunter, as in the old days the only way to take a Polar Bear was with a spear. It was considered the Father of the Yup'ik people. Polar Bear Claws were mounted close to the entrance of their house to ward off evil spirits and they also had therapeutic qualities, such as a cure for a headache. People called upon the spirit of "nanuq" to witness their oaths.

Care of bone includes avoiding hot dry locations, such as direct sun in a window or a heat register. Give it an occasional very light coating of baby oil or mineral oil, put it on a cloth first or a q-tip.

James Uglowook's signature (last name) can be seen on the rear paw. It measures 6 3/4 inches nose to back paw, 3 3/4 inches high, and 2 1/2 to 3 inches wide. This is a very beautiful carving and would make a great item for conversation and display, or a real surprise gift from one of the most remote areas of the US.

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