Inuit Arts and Crafts

Reaching midlife, my father bought a Winnebago motor home, packed up the family and the poodle, and followed his dream to the far reaches of Alaska. Nothing in the world could dampen his enthusiasm, not even when the "Winne’s" brakes gave way, with no repair shop in sight for the next thousand gravel filled miles.
After finally sliding to a halt in Nome, the relived entourage hopped a flight north for a sightseeing trip above the Arctic Circle. First stop, Kotzebue, a tiny Inuit (Eskimo) fishing village. Naturally, they found its glaciers and pristine mountain lakes breathtaking and the Native dancing, singing, and drumming demonstrations entertaining. But the highlight of their visit was Kotzebue’s tiny gift shop. Inside they found an unexpected array of traditional Native arts and crafts, ones that most people who live in the lower Forty-Eight, as they call continental US, see only in museums, if at all.
Remote Arctic villages offer limited economic opportunity. So Inuits continue to rely on the same skills that have served them since the beginning of time, hunting, trapping, fishing, and whaling. Then they typically transform the inedible remains of their quarries into useful, everyday objects. Thus salmon or halibut skins may become basket-like containers and moose bladders or hearts may find new life as tote bags. Many other animal byproducts, like tusks, claws, pelts, bones, also inspire Alaskan Native crafts people. Inuit arts and crafts, then, reflect the Inuit way of life.

Great whales, for example, besides yielding life-giving meat and blubber (available in the meat section of Alaskan city supermarkets), are also valued for their baleen. Baleens, commonly known as whalebone, are sets of flexible keratin plates, that function in place of teeth, filtering seafood from seawater. For generations, Inuits have carved animal figurines, jewelry, baskets, masks, and even miniature airplanes from this varicolored substance. They also use black baleen as decorative inlay, which, combined with white ivory, produces attractive pieces of jewelry and sets of dice.

Inuit artists also carve ivory tusks, remains of seal and walrus hunts, into miniature replicas of the life they see around them, polar bears, mammoths, musk oxen, whales, owls, and even tableaus of Inuit drummers and hunters. They also design imaginative bracelets, earrings, hairpins, rings, and intricately carved pendants from ivory. Whalers too, whiling away long sea voyages, sometimes engrave scrimshaw, series of elaborate pictures highlighted with dark pigments, on ivory. But more often, these scrimshanders, as they are called, decorate the material most close at hand, whales’ teeth and bones.

Besides working whalebone, Inuit crafts people also transform walrus, fossilized mastodon, and other animal bone, into works of art. Larger ones often become attractive, all-purpose vessels. Smaller ones often adorn earrings and necklaces. And a fossilized walrus jawbone cribbage board is sure to break the ice back home.

But the oosik is the most unusual bone of all. True, oosiks, whether from walrus, seal, sea lion, or polar bear, are valued as sturdy tool handles. But polished to a sheen, inlayed with baleen, and capped with ivory figurines, these penile bones are also prized as lucky charms, and–how not? Fertility amulets. Naturally, they have proved extremely popular with tourists too. Alaskan Native artists also sculpt alabaster and soapstone, which are relatively soft, into decorative figures and jewelry. They also market solid chunks of jade mined above the Arctic Circle.

A variety of other inspiring raw materials abound. Polar bear claws adorn many a pendant and necklace. Reindeer fur, moose hides, porcupine quills, birds’ feathers, and walrus teeth and guts, spark many a creative imagination. For generations, Inuits have spent the long, dark polar nights transforming moose, deer, and caribou antlers into works of art.

Caribou, one of the Inuits’ chief sources of food, are also highly valued for their hair and hide. Caribou-skin masks make striking tourist souvenirs. Their tufted hair, beards, eyebrows, eyelashes, and mustaches, all meticulously fashioned from varicolored animal fur, uncannily resemble our own. And the fur “parkas” that rim their faces add to their realistic, rustic charm.

Indeed, pelts are big business in Alaska, both to locals, who appreciate their warmth, and tourists alike. Shops typically offer wolverine ear muffs, fur-lined parkas, furry purses, mukluks (reindeer or sealskin boots), super soft seal slippers, and moose hide headbands. Some also stock unusual items like sea otter pillows, polar bear hats, and sealskin thimbles. In fact, in some shops, tourists can order “any desired piece of clothing made in any desired skin.” Those who prefer to exhibit their Alaskan mementos rather than wear them can purchase furs, like white Arctic fox or Alaskan wolf, intact and mounted, ready for display.

On the other hand, qiviut (pronounced “kiv-ee-ute”), the soft grayish-brown underwool of the rare musk ox, is actually more fiber than fur. After the oxen shed their winter coats, great puffs of fleece, gently harvested from their undersides, women knit them into super soft patterned hats and scarves. Many times warmer than wool, lightweight, and non-shrinking, this natural wonder fiber is both highly desirable and highly expensive.

Wood, though far rarer than stone and bone in these vast northern wastes, is commonly used to make ceremonial drums, decorative carvings, and, of course, totem poles. Birch bark frames and baskets are also popular items. So are  wooden harpoons or spears, which produced especially for the tourist trade, come ready to mount on den walls back home. Others bring home ulus, variable sized, all-purpose knives traditionally used by women. Originally made with bone or caribou antler handles and slate “blades,” today’s birch wood and steel models boast decorative laser-engraved designs. According to reports on the ground, they still  gut fish, cut animal sinews, slice food, and trim blocks of snow for igloos admirably, as of old.

By the time the Winnebago headed south again toward the lower Forty-Eight, the family had accumulated far more than photographs and a new set of brakes. They also brought home a mounted white fox skin, a harpoon, a couple of ferocious soapstone hunters, a handful of Nome gold nuggets, a haunting caribou mask, and enough Alaskan memories for a lifetime.