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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Handle Depicting Two Caribou
Ivory, 4” Length, c.1600-1800
Thule Handle Depicting Two Caribou
Thule Handle Depicting Two Caribou
Thule Handle Depicting Two Caribou

This delicately carved and modeled handle may have functioned to clasp a lidded basket or pouch, with its perforations through the ends and the wide space outlined by the necks and heads of the outstretching animals. Holding this object, which fits comfortably in the hand, one perceives that a flat leather strap might have been tucked through the center of the handle, held in place by the caribous’ chins. Likely, the leather came from the hides of caribou themselves.

Each caribou is seen with its legs alternately flexed or bent, suggesting that we are looking at the same animal, in a running motion. If this is the case (and there are many other examples where two states of the same creature are represented separately like this, within the same carving), perhaps then we are looking at a handle utilized on a container for hunting implements, specifically one holding tools used for hunting caribou.

Often, toolboxes and bags used for fishing tools are decorated with images of fish, just as bird blunts and other bird-catching implements express images of various fowl. These animal forms, when seen on utilitarian objects, act like labels, just as we might caption our modern containers with words to indicate what is inside.

In this fine example, though, we may also read a complete life cycle. We may additionally be seeing two caribou, a male and female, and their slightly varied positions may be seen sexually: one crouching, the other prepared to mount. This too would resonate for the hunter, in understanding that in order for his life-sustaining hunt to succeed, the animals must also reproduce, and that the killing upon which his own survival depends includes within it the beginnings of another, earlier cycle.