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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Shaman’s Amulet
Ivory & Abalone Shell, 4½” Length, c.1840-1860
Tlingit Shaman's Ivory Amulet
Tlingit Shaman's Ivory Amulet

Amulets were primarily employed by shamans on the Northwest Coast, but many people in these cultures may have kept small pieces of material (shapes made of stone, bone, horn, etc.) or simple carvings as talismans for their own well being and protection from spiritual harm.

An early drawing (from the 1780s) of a high-ranking Haida woman includes an English silver fork worn about her neck on a cord, the first of this exotic material to be used as jewelry. Shamans' amulets are usually recognizable by certain types of imagery they include that are unique to the shamanic calling, such as emaciated people or animals (with skeletal features), octopus suckers, figures in transformation, land otters, and similar themes. Amulets were made of bone, horn, ivory, and sometimes wood or stone.

This interesting small sculpture is made of whale ivory, deeply relief-carved into three interrelated figures. The amulet may have been strung on a deer or moose-hide cord through the pierced opening below the neck of the human figure along the top. The top head may be a whale or dolphin, with round, inlaid eyes, a rounded snout and large mouth. What are probably pectoral fins stream back from the rear corner of the head and are split into two long digits or feather-like forms.

At the opposite end of the amulet, an even more difficult creature to identify is shown with separately carved lobes in a row behind it. This represents the creature’s backbone. The head also has round inlaid eyes, and an unusual form that arches up over the animal’s snout. This may represent the head of a large whale species like a humpback or bowhead. Between the two heads spans the carved form of a reclining human figure, its hands crossed over its belly. The mask-like face has large abalone-shell inlaid eyes and an open mouth, which indicates that the figure is singing. This image most likely represent the shaman himself, spirit-traveling with the two creature images to a realm between life and death, the spirit-universe of the shaman.


Exhibited: Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme
Pinacothèque de Paris, 2008