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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Needle Case in the form of a Seal
Engraved & Pigmented Ivory, 6" Length, c.1860-1880
Inuit Needle Case in the form of a Seal
Inuit Needle Case in the form of a Seal
Inuit Needle Case in the form of a Seal

There is a wonderful story that was collected in 1899 by Nelson that tells of a Inuit headman from the North who had no wife, searched and found one, and was very happy. A tribesman from the south was so jealous of his happiness he went to kidnap the woman to make her his wife. As she was being abducted in the night, her husband awoke and pulled away from her kidnapper by her feet. The woman split in two and both men had parts of the wife, one a top and the other a bottom. Both men built replacements for the missing parts, one a set of legs and feet and the other a head and hands, which they magically imbued with life.

Alas, there were some shortcomings to the men's work that were impossible to overcome. The woman who had wooden hands couldn't do needlework very expertly, but could dance beautifully and the woman with wooden feet couldn't dance at all well, but did wonderful needlework. To this day, these characteristics are considered true, which, of course proves the truth of the tale.

This folktale is perfectly expressed in this finely modeled and cleverly designed variation on a needle case. The head pulls off, acting as a lid for the container, and is perfectly carved to fit almost seamlessly onto the body, which is hollowed out to fit the needles in its cavity (a number of its original ivory needles are still inside). The smiling seal head shows off exactingly carved teeth, and the animal is shown in the typical swimming / flying position seen in many other representative examples.

When combined with the addition of engraved decorations and circle symbols, it is safe to presume this needle case would have carried with it the similar spiritual charms and meanings of other amulets, in addition to its keeping needles safe. As with many other tools, this seal neatly expresses the practical and shamanistic principles in a logical and compact form.

Ivory needles like the ones inside had many practical functions, but up to the present day native women, both north and south, use them for sewing together many sorts of garments and containers, as well as skin coverings on Umiaks and Kayaks, all of which are constructed from seal skins.