The artifact that drew me in was a small ivory carving in the likeness of a whale. The figurine is from the Cape Prince of Wales area, which is the most western part of Alaska. This area was the home of a small Inupiat subset known as the “Kiŋigin”. The time of origin for the whale was not available at the museum, which left me curious.
Growing up, my father had a lot of small animal figurines from Native artists. He displayed these pieces proudly around the house, and I remember playing with them as a child. My favorite piece of the collection was a white whale that looked very similar to the figure displayed in the museum.
Not knowing the time period that each of these two whales were made, several questions came to mind. Did the figurine have a mechanical or functional purpose? Was is simply a piece of art, or a toy for a child? Were they originally sacred or have a symbolic nature? Or did the whale figurines come about as a means for the Natives to earn money from foreign traders? If anyone has any input, I would love to know.
Whale Figurines 11-A-3191 courtesy of Alaska State Museum – Juneau