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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Wood, Ivory & Block-Printed Cloth, 10" Height, c.18th Century
Inupiat Doll
Inupiat Doll

This curious, and wonderfully preserved, Inu doll sits at a number of cultural crossroads. It is evidence of shifting values and influences, in that the application of printed fabric can only be supposed to have been obtained through trade, and the doll itself appears distinctively Russian in character. It is possible that the doll itself comes from the Chuckchi peninsula, and was traded to a native Alaskan, or that the fabric was traded, but in either case, the doll has a strange aspect.

Whether it was used as a toy or for some other ceremonial purpose cannot be known, but the fact that she represents a respected grandmother, perhaps a portrait of a specific individual, is hinted at. She sports specific facial tattoos, a sign of elderly status and wisdom, and the patterning of her outfit, with its wide red band across the skirt, is likely an identifier, and to this day the sewn patterning of parka, boots and other clothing is usually specific to a native village. These patterns often identify not only the place of birth, location of residence, but also clan and community status.

With its stick hand-hold beneath the skirt, this doll shows evidence of being used as a puppet, and thereby must have had a performative function.

Grandmothers in native villages had many important roles, and among the most primary was the midwifing and naming ceremony undertaken by elders during childbirth. Names of ancestors were repeatedly spoken aloud during the course of a woman’s labor, and the name spoken by the grandmother as the new baby emerged was given to the child, a sign that the ancestor being named was in fact emerging along with the child, completing its spiritual transmutation, coming back to fulfuill its journey and reembark upon its duty to protect the family. One can imagine that a particularly powerful grandmother might be needed for future generations, after her own death, and have been represented as a doll, and through another form of ventriloquism, be called upon to partake in the naming ceremony.

Perhaps, then, this traditional doll may have had more than simply a toy’s purpose, but also played a key role in the health, continuity and survival of a family. Perhaps, like so many other attributes of cultural artifacts, she is an embodiment of spiritual regeneration, a blend of people, places and hope.