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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Harpoon Handle
Ivory, 10” Length, c.1830 - 1880
Inuit Harpoon Handle
Inuit Harpoon Handle

This unusually long ivory tool is delicately and precisely engraved, with fine lines tracing along the animal’s face and stylized body. The design of the engraving exhibits motifs repeatedly seen throughout Arctic culture: there are skeletal lines and concentric-circular joint marks, rendered in the simple and abstract circle patterns symbolic of spiritual transformation.

The lines tracing the body denote the continuity of the skeleton, that part of an animal which transcends life itself, and the concentric circles represent the spiritual planes of existence conceived in the shamanic universe. The carver has allowed for the simple drawing of four flippers to indicate the animal’s skeletal identity, with nothing more than two parallel lines connecting them to each other, and to the head. Everything else about the seal has been reduced to abstraction, but the animal’s head, with delicate whiskers, eyebrows and triangular ears, and distinctively smiling mouth, all provide character and presence to it.

The seal appears aware, conscious, alive. It has been carefully inlaid with blue trade beads for its eyes, which exaggerates the effect. There is also, at the very center of the seal’s mouth, another inlay, which is larger and probably held in place a pointed spike of iron, now missing. Judging from this inlay, by the large size of the seal, and that the opposite, “tail” end of the animal is carved with a large notched groove, it is likely that this piece was attached to another socket or handle, in a similar manner as a hunting harpoon.

However, the piece does not conform to the typical design of harpoons, or any other fishing implement, and if it was ever used as such it did not see very much action, since it has remained unmarred by the sort of wear such tools typically exhibit. Rather, it may be the case that this pristine seal may have been used as a sort of auditory device, to scrape the ice near a breathing hole, its metal mouthpiece used to chip away at the perimeter ice, and to attract the submerged seals to the surface. As with other hunting tools, the representation of the animal is indicative of the prey, and too, the spiritual transformation represented on the carving is consistent with the life-death cycle that will manifest itself in the eventuality of a successful hunt. We see an implement that is used to summon forth its progeny, an ancestor carved in ivory, calling to a family member to fulfill its duty.