I chose the Arctic for the place-based assignment, mainly because I know very little about it. So on our class trip to SLAM, I gravitated at once toward the exhibits on Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and Siberian Yupik culture. What set those exhibits apart from the rest of the museum, I realized, was the display focused on children: children’s toys, children’s clothing. A plaque next to the display explained, “Young people are treated with affection and respect for their independence. They are encouraged to learn by watching adults, experimenting with those activities, and learning from their mistakes.”
Most of the children’s toys had some kind of practical connection to adult life. There was a tiny, sled, an equally tiny canoe, a toy bowl and spoon, a miniature harpoon and a miniature ulu. But there was also a row of carved ivory birds that the display described as game pieces, and carved ivory story knife with tiny ivory figures balanced on its edge. I was struck by the smallness of all the toys. The miniature tools weren’t fitted to a child’s hand; they were smaller than that. They looked like practical things, and yet they were clearly designed to be toys and nothing else. I was impressed that in a civilization where resources are scarce, where no one can afford waste, people were willing to spend time and care and materials making tiny works of art for their children to play with.
I took photos of all the toys in the exhibit, but I chose the ulu for my featured image because something about its simplicity appealed to me right away. The blade is slate, and the handle is bone.
Ulu courtesy of Alaska State Museum, Juneau