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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Nunivak Island
Fishing Lure
Ivory, Baleen, Iron & Fabric, 10½" Length, c.1860-1880
Nunivak Island Fishing Lure
Nunivak Island Fishing Lure
Nunivak Island Fishing Lure

Although the metamorphosis of animal and human forms is typical a theme among native arctic artforms, and depictions of several animals in the same carving is relatively common, the compositional choices usually bear a clear relationship to the object being crafted. Seal net floats are often carved into representations of seals, bird blunts may have beak-like shapes, fishing lures look like fish, etc. But here we have an unusual case of a device decorated with animals that would themselves not be the object of the tool.

A fox and a walrus rest casually upon the body of this large fishing lure, heads facing each other as if meeting socially for discussion, seated upon a parlor sofa or Tête-a Tête. Rather than a utilitarian fishing lure, this carefully composed and modeled ivory appears as sculpture, with animals at rest rather than in natural movement, as if posing for the artist in a formal portrait. The carving is exquisite and fine, with baleen inlays for eyes an colored recesses to indicate paws and fur.

At the same time, though, the lure clearly could function, with its strongly-mounted iron barb, remnant of hide cord line and lashings, and the distinctive red fabric tie attached at the joint of the iron hook and ivory lure, a tell-tale indication of clever visual technique for attracting the attention of fish (one often sees red fabric attendants to workaday fishing lures, as the hunter attempts to convince his prey that the bait is already wounded and bloody).

One can surmise, then, that these particular animals, the fox and the walrus, are like cousins to the fisherman, all three of them being fish-eating hunters. Perhaps this carver wished to summon the skills and experience of these two natural fish catchers, summoning their guidance and expertise. Given the animistic beliefs and tendencies of the ancestors of native arctic hunters, one might see this lure in the same light as other fishing and hunting charms, and in a rare but conceptually consistent example, see in the fox and walrus one more generation of continuity and the promise of survival.