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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Otter Amulet
Engraved & Pigmented Ivory, 3 ½” Length, c.1870 -1880
Inuit Otter Amulet
Inuit Otter Amulet

There are rare occasions when a carved object has no other function but to represent a hunted animal, as a sculpture. This is one such example, of a charm figure, which would have been placed in a Kayak when seeking otters. It should be noted, however, that even though this charm does not appear to double as a practical tool, its significance is powerful.

This is a communicating figure, shown swimming on its back, with front paws delicately touching its face, as if eating or calling out. Arctic native hunters have described using amulets like this precisely to assist them in guiding animals to them, which this otter seems to be doing.

Notable here are the finely engraved rib markings, and the repeating dots and drill holes along the spine, tail, and joints of the rear flippers. Like the circular joint markings depicted in many other animal representations, these express the mortal and spiritual transformation of the animal. Skeletal markings often metaphorically express life cycles, in that we, as animals, are composed of bones, which hold us together while alive as well as remain as evidence of us once we die.

The circular marks and dots represent passages through transformational states, and in the shamanic universe of native Alaskans, animals, people, fish and birds may be seen traveling through concentric circles much like the stacked planes that the Buddhist universe is conceived to be. As one passes through one circle, he becomes another creature, in order to navigate the particularities of the next sphere.

The fact that there are seven drilled dots along the spinal decoration of this otter, and three triangulating dots encumbering his belly, is additionally significant, perhaps in the expression of the hunter, that his success depends upon the continual support of his charm, repeatedly, throughout his life.