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First published: October 2000

Inuit Art

by Michael Sones

Native American Cultures - The Arctic
Native American-The Arctic
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The Inuit of the 'Dorset culture' carved in the materials available to them, antler, bone, ivory, wood, and stone. With their stone carving implements they made delicate and exquisite carvings of animals, particularly bears and seals, and human beings. While some of the representations of animals are naturalistic they also carved forms which were combinations of humans and bears and humans and seals. These forms may represent animal spirit helpers. This is a similar motif to the 'were-jaguar' of the Olmecs. The art of the Dorset culture is thought to have had a religious significance connected with shamanistic religious practice. The art of the Thule culture is much more functional and decorative than the Dorset culture and is not thought to have the same religious significance. Archaeologists think that a lot of Thule art was used as toys and for games.

The environment and the type of materials available has a profound effect on the type of art. Much of Inuit art is carving of stone, whalebone, caribou antler, musk ox horn and ivory. There are no canvases to paint upon and natural wood is scarce. The native stones used by the Inuit are usually serpentine, marble, quartz, argilite and dolomite. Acquiring them is a difficult business as they have to be "mined" at a place which is often some days from where the summer camp is. Soapstone carvings,so favored by modern collectors of Inuit art, are not found in any archaeological sites but are a twentieth century development. Soapstone is talc seatite and is very soft. It is relatively easy to carve and so lends itself to mass commercial production. Inuit artists used to use bone or ivory. Now they use stone which is sometimes imported from Brazil or Italy.

Many gallery owners like to emphasize the traditional nature of Inuit art linking it with ideas they think will appeal to Western collectors. Inuit art traditionally had several functions and these were a) decorative b) religious/magical c) for toys d) for something to do (there sometimes is not a lot to do in the dark of an Arctic winter when it is many degrees subzero outside).

Caribou. Photo from  Copyright Free Photo Library

The artist studies the raw piece of stone until he 'sees' a shape within it of an animal or person. He then roughly chisels it out before refining it with files and then sandpaper. The idea that there is a) an image of an animal containing the essence of the animal within the stone b) needing to be released by the Inuit artist has its origins in the Inuit beliefs that it was human acts of creativity that freed the universe from a dormant state.

This is perhaps not unlike a story attributed to Michelangelo. When asked how he managed to create something as beautiful as the statue of David he is reported to have replied that it was easy. He had just chipped away the stone that was not David.

The simple form and smooth curved lines of much Inuit carving are analogous to the simplicity and lines of the snow covered Arctic landscape. However, now the primary function of Inuit art seems to be economic. Inuit homes do not usually contain Inuit art nor is Inuit art an expression of contemporary Inuit culture. As can be seen from the links down the side of this page the Inuit are now on the Web. A carving of an 'Eskimo' in a parka sitting in front of a computer monitor would probably not have that great an appeal to Western collectors. Many Inuit have never used spears to hunt. One of the main motivates of contemporary Inuit art is economic. The traditional Inuit way of life, based on cooperation and hunting, was gradually eroded by the Inuit becoming employed in the whaling industry in the nineteenth century and then the white fox fur trade from late nineteenth until the mid-twentieth. The dependence of the Inuit upon employment, the things money can buy, and the change from cooperative hunting to solitary pursuits such as trapping all took their toll.

Inuit Silkscreen. Photo  from Copyright Free Photo Library

The traditional spiritual life and myths of the Inuit emphasized the relationship between humans, animals and the hunting of animals and the bounty and dangers of the physical environment.

Animals have a 'soul' and must be hunted with due respect and ritual. Animals, for the Inuit, have 'personhood' though are not human. Offense against an animal soul can lead to all manner of misfortune including bad hunting and inclement weather.

Bad hunting can bring starvation for there are few wild plants to be gathered for food in the arctic. For example, among the Inuit of Greenland it was necessary, after a successful polar bear hunt, to leave pieces of the hide or vertebrae to flutter in the wind. This allowed the spirit of the killed animal to be released.

One of the Arctic's most beautiful natural phenomena is the northern lights, Aurora borealis. [Aurora 2000]The Inuit believe this to be the souls of the dead which are waiting to be reborn.

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The ambivalence towards Nature's bounty and Nature's ambivalence towards mankind can clearly be seen in the myth of Sedna, the Sea-Woman.

Long ago Sedna, a girl, refused to get married despite her father's wishes. Because of her persistent refusal he punished her by marrying her to a dog and they lived on an island. She escaped from her dog-husband and the island by leaving with a stranger who happened to be passing one day. She married the stranger and went to live with him in his village but became frightened when she learned that he was not really a man but a petrel which could transform itself into a man. She wanted to escape from him and fled in a boat with her father who had been searching for her. The petrel had some powers over the weather and, after finding Sedna and her father, caused a storm. To stop the boat from sinking Sedna's father threw her into the sea. Sedna desperately clung to the side of the boat and begged her father to save her life. He refused and, to stop her clinging to the boat, cut her fingers off one at a time. As these severed fingers hit the water they were magically transformed into narwhals, whales, and seals. Sedna's father then poked out one of her eyes and she sank to the bottom of the sea. She became the custodian of the animals which had previously been her fingers and could release them in order for humans to hunt them but she holds on to them when humans have hurt an animal's soul. Then a shaman must intervene and persuade Sedna to release the animals in order the people can be successful at the hunt. Sometimes they are entangled in her hair which has been dirtied by humans breaking the rules. Her hair must then be combed by the shaman in order for the animals to be released.

One of the key themes of Inuit mythical life, the transformation of animals into man and vice versa, can be seen in this myth as it can be seen on the white triangles decorating the parkas of North Alaskan Inuit. These are meant to represent walrus tusks with associations to ideas about walrus-men and the transformation of men into walruses and walruses into men. This unusual view of the interrelationship between the animal and human world is epitomized in Inuit mythical stories about polar bears having sexual intercourse with women. Bears are both hunted and predators of man. Were-animals ('were' is from the Old English word for 'man' which was wer ) also figure in the were-jaguars of the Olmecs and the werewolves of Medieval Europe.

Arctic Fox

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