Syllabic Translator

i u a pi pu pa ti tu ta ki ku ka gi gu ga mi mu ma ni nu na si su sa li lu la ji ju ja vi vu va ri ru ra qi qu qa ngi ngu nga lhi lhu lha

Click a syllabic button to enter it into the search field above

Or try our Advanced Search tool.

Eskimo Carvings by James A. Houston

Eskimo Carvings by James A. Houston*

If you ask an Eskimo of the Canadian Eastern Arctic if he carves objects, sinourak, he will answer “Certainly”! For in a land where life is governed by hunting and where any one area will produce only enough game to support a few families there is no specialization. Every family must be able to do everything - - make a pair of boots, build a kayak, fashion a knife, shape a harpoon, sing a song and, of course, make a pleasing object of art. Many experts believe that these people are producing an art of stone, bone and ivory carving equal to or surpassing any native art on this Continent. It seems strange to find a rich, productive art flourishing in this harsh land.

Living a semi-nomadic existence in tents and snow houses along the barren shores of Hudson Bay and Baffin Island, the Eskimos are hindered by a severe climate which prevents food growing - - food, which has always been the life blood of civilization. Fewer than 12,000 in number, scattered in isolated groups over an area of more than half-a-million square miles, they relied entirely until recent years on the sea and land animals around them to provide food for themselves and fat to heat their dwellings. 

It is probably that the Eskimos first introduced tailored clothing in America. Their parkas, trousers and boots of caribou skin cannot be equaled for comfort and warmth by anything we have been able to design. 

The slim kayak is said to be the world’s most perfectly devised water craft. The seal oil lamp, the harpoon, the fish spear are unique in design and exactly suited to their requirements. The Eskimo women produce objects of rare design and beauty, utilizing all their amazing skill at needlework in the delicate blending of furs. 

The Eskimo possesses cheerfulness and tranquility of mind to a degree that seems almost unknown in our own civilization. He finds time in his life of hardships to laugh, to dance and to sing songs, to carve the fine plastic forms that perfectly portray his cultural rise above his savage surroundings, as well as his feeling about the people and the life around them. This marked trait of playfulness and good humour, so characteristic of the Eskimo nature, is reflected in his carvings. 

The surge of civilization that swept this Continent in the past several centuries stamped out many Indian ritualistic tribal arts, leaving in its wake a meaningless souvenir trade. But the geographical remoteness of the Eskimo protected him and the link between the past and the present in his art is as yet unbroken. How old are the earliest of the stone and ivory carvings discovered in the Eastern Arctic? Certainly they are centuries old, but to date them would be difficult. Many ancient pieces of walrus ivory carvings have the rich mahogony [sic] color of great age. Little change seems to have taken place in the concept of their art or carvings technique except for a tendency to increase the size of their work. 

What motivates this man? What inner spring of thought demands an art of him? Perhaps it is the clinging remnent of a forgotten civilization, of the Asiatic Continent where he almost certainly originated. Perhaps it is pure love of craftsmanship which he obviously holds in highest esteem. The severe climate demands that the Eskimo spend a good part of his life inside his house. For the most part he is required to provide his own amusement and since he has never wasted his energy on warfare and is by nature industrious he finds time to contemplate and to perfect his art. 

A few facts about his carvings stand out. Possibly the most notable is that in his art we see life through the eyes of a hunter. He portrays accurately the movement of the living things around him with the keen, trained senses of one whose very life depends upon observation. 

“When hunting caribou one must think as a caribou thinks”, they say “Try to understand from their movements what they will do next”. 

As the season approaches for various animals to migrate to his land, the Eskimo warms to the thrill of the hunt. You can feel the excitement of the search for walrus, of the seal hunt on the dangerous ice floes, the first coming of the geese, the salmon running in the rivers - the fatness, the agility of the animal depicted with the concentration of a carver whose whole mind is focused on his food supply. It is thought in some subtle way to bring good fortune if one carefully portrays the animal he desires to obtain. 

Miniature likenesses of treasured possessions were sometimes placed in the grave; the innua, or share, of the dead man, it was believed, could easily enlarge them to the size desired. These miniatures were exact models of the household implements, hunting equipment and tools necessary to a man in this life. The Eskimo’s expert dissection of game gives him a fine anatomical knowledge on which to base his work, a knowledge which is apparent in his well-proportioned carvings. 

In any Eskimo group, such as the Kingnimiut of Baffin Island, there is unanimous agreement as to the best carver among them. When asked, they will immediately tell you who is their best carver, leaving no room for question. It is as if he were their official carver. 

In carving, the Eskimo still uses his primitive methods. He fashions knives shaped to his own requirements, using a chard of scrap metal set in a bone handle. A steel needle is employed as an etching tool for incised drawing and fine detail. The bow-drill is operated by placing the short rotating shaft in a bone  socket held in the mouth, leaving the carver one hand to work the bow back and forth, rotating the shaft, the other hand free to hold the carving. After the stone has been carved and drilled into the desired shape, a rough stone and sometimes sand is used to attain a finish. Then the carving is submerged in seal oil for two days or more to let the oil impregnate and darken the stone, after which it is rubbed to its final smoothness with stone dust and polished by hand. 

Files are now used to some extent but when these are not available the Eskimo readily returns to his old ways. The complete adoption of our methods will probably not improve the art of the Eskimos as their simple tools force them to utilize the natural shape of the raw materials to best advantage; the difficulty of working in stone with such primitive tools encourages boldness and simplicity. 

There seem to be two schools of thought among the Eskimo artists; one man will carve with infinite care, his sculpture showing the finest details; the next man will create on a much wider plane merely suggesting the details while concentrating on the form and movement. However, no art controversy exists among them, since the inherent politeness of the Eskimo requires that he praise highly the work of his fellow carver, no matter how inferior it may be to his own, and greatly malign his own work. The finer his carvings are, the louder his protests that he is completely unskilled and his work worthless. In snow houses and tents the carvings are never seen on constant display but, like the ancient Chinese, the people keep their small art objects carefully wrapped and hidden away awaiting the moment when the atmosphere is right, when upon request they will be passed to a guest for inspection. Partly for this reason the back and underparts of objects are as carefully carved as the front (for example, the detail in bears’ paws) since the guest, turning it over in his hands, will examine all aspects of the carving.

The Canadian Handicrafts guild has collected many thousands of pieces of carving in the last four years and of these few are even similar, for the Eskimos regard originality to be of utmost importance. I have shown the work of carvers from Repulse Bay to Dorset Eskimos, and, although they admired it greatly, they avoided making anything even vaguely resembling it. 

Just before a walrus hunt, I visited the camp of Kepekilik at Povungnetuk on the east coast of Hudson Bay. After he had gone through the usual explanation about what a useless carver he was he offered me the most perfect stone walrus I had ever seen. I praised it and asked him if he would carve another for me. After a perplexed silence he said “You see that I can carve the likeness of a walrus! Why would you want another one?” As far as he was concerned, he had proven himself as a carver of walrus and that was enough. I suggested that I had never seen a caribou carved by him. After thinking about this he became so excited that he immediately went out to select a suitable piece of stone. 

The people on the east coast of Hudson Bay are fortunate in having numerous deposits of steatite and amphibolite and soft serpentine stone along the coast suitable for carvings and for making their traditional stone lamps. Baffin Islanders are not so fortunate and often must travel long distances to obtain okusiksak (literally, material for making kettles). On one occasion I journeyed with them by small whale boat to a place called Akeeaktolaolavik -- “the place where there is plenty to eat” - - and there at the top of a fiord we found the stone under fifteen feet of water. It is quite common to find the best stone below tide level so we waited patiently until the water receded. The Eskimo quarries the steatite by simply using a larger, harder stone as sledge hammer and shattering pieces from the main body of rock. The shapes and sizes desired may not always be obtained but when he has gathered all he can safely carry in the boat, he returns to his camp. 

During the long winter the deposits are locked away for ten months beneath tons of ice. He wishes he had more stone to carve, he wishes he had another seal to eat. “Oh well”, he laughs “Iyonamut -- it can’t be helped. Summer will come again”. 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Eskimo art is that almost eighty per cent of the adults in any group so far visited take an active part in creating pleasing and highly salable work. Still the supply does not nearlymeet [sic] the demand. The fat, bulging weight of walrus, the sleek strength of bears, the primitive honest directness of all his forms have charmed the museums, the art galleries and the public. 

Carving is done in the home and out in the camps, allowing the Eskimo to follow his normal way of life. It does not therefore destroy the cohesion of the family to draw him to white settlements where he might find work. In this, his first step into industry, we find him talented and energetic, delighted to improve his living and to eliminate the necessity of accepting government relief.  

The Canadian Handicrafts Guild is well aware of the many pitfalls in dealing with a primitive art. A demand for mass production has, in the past, destroyed many creative arts. The Guild does not wish to increase the present volume of the craftsman’s work nor does it wish to change his methods in any way. His art will remain strong only as long as it has real significance to him. To teach him to recreate, endlessly, popular carvings for commercial reasons, although it might assure a good market, would soon kill his natural creative ability. 

Recent works of the Eskimos have been shown in art galleries and museums in Canada, in the United States, in Britain and Europe. It is our great hope that in the future the names of Oshweetuk, Munamee, Kepekilik, Akeeaktashuk, Tudlik, Tungeelik and other fine carvers will become well known. 

* Until 1962, Mr. Houston was employed by the Arctic Division of the Canadian Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources. His duties entailed the encouragement of the Eskimo handicrafts industry and the development of markets for the carvings produced by the northern people. Mr. Houston is a talented artist whose paintings and sketches of the Canadian Arctic are known internationally.

Featured Content