separate Northwest Coast
tribal groups produced Ivory objects in a fashion sometimes referred to
as the Bering Sea Style.
These objects were stylistically advanced beyond the reach of many indigenous
and in many ways exceeded the abilities of larger, more signifcant PaleoAmerican
cultures such as the Maya and the Aztecs.
Although there was a pronounced lack of metal and carveable stone, the
Pacific Northwest was a rich migration grounds for many species of fish
and aquatic mammals. A large Walrus population was constant and the huge
animals comprised a large part of the Eskimo diet along with seal, reindeer
and the occasional Polar Bear.
of its comparative abundance and amazing durability, Walrus Ivory became
the principal medium of expression in the Bering Sea cultures.Everything
from children's toy to hunting implements were fashioned from this nearly
indestrucable material and as a result, items stayed in use from generation
to generation, sometimes for hundreds of years.
Tlingit (probably Tantakwan, Southern Tlingit)
Hollowed and relief-carved bear femur with abalone shell inlay and attached
ca. 1850-1870, 6" Long
The descriptive name 'soul catcher' has been given to this particular
symmetrical form of shaman's amulet, which were most often carved of
bone, said to be the femur or leg bone of a coastal brown or interior
grizzly bear. Most bone soul catcher amulets were made for and used
by Tsimshian shamans, though examples of these objects have also been
collected among the Tlingit, Haida, and Bella Bella as well. This particular
amulet has characteristics that suggest Tlingit manufacture, particularly
from among the most southerly group of Tlingit speakers, the Tantakwan
of southern Southeast Alaska.
The somewhat naturalistic form of the small bear image in the center
of the amulet is especially Tlingit in character, and the bear was an
important emblem of the Teiqweidí clan of the Tantakwan (southern Tlingit).
The relief-carved profile heads on either end of the amulet also appear
to represent bears, and the abalone shell inlaid as teeth brings the
power of this valuable sea creature to bear in the usage of the amulet.
Soul catcher imagery varies from one example to another, and includes
the representation of wolves, bears, whales, and sometimes human figures
in the central position on the amulet. Only a few examples feature the
use of abalone shell inlay as seen in this ornately decorated amulet.
Soul catchers are so called because of their historically described
use in the recovery of 'lost souls'. Loss of one's soul or spirit is
said to be the cause of illness and disorientation manifested in the
life of an individual. Shamans wore these amulets around their necks,
and were employed to journey to the 'land of the dead' in order to locate
the lost spirit and return it to the patient in order to restore their
health and well being. The recovered soul is sucked into the tubular
amulet and captured there with the insertion of cedar bark plugs in
each end. Only a very small number of these amulets have retained these
shredded bark end plugs.
and Pierced Whale Tooth with Abalone Shell Inlay
1840-1860 3 1/3” Long
Skinner’s March 25, 2000; Ron Nasser, Inc.
Tlingit shaman’s amulets often include images of spirit-travel, the
shaman’s journey into other worlds in order to gain information crucial
to their practice. In this warmly colored example, the shaman image
reclines with clasped hands at his middle, on the backs of two (or an
ambiguous combination of two) spirit images. On the right end, a head
that may represent a salmon, or more likely a humpback whale, includes
a protruding snout. Behind and below this head, elongated pectoral fins
sweep back along the sides of the amulet.
The narrow snout and the length of these fins seem to replicate the
proportions of a humpback whale, a crest of the Gaanaxteidi clan of
the northern Tlingit. The head of the shaman is positioned in a way
that allows it to double as the blowhole or breathing spout of the whale.
Within the sculpture, along its central axis, the bare vertebrae of
the whale are carved. Exposed vertebrae are a common shamanic symbol
for spirit, rather than physic al, form.
the ‘tail’ end of the line of vertebrae, a bird’s head is carved. The
true meaning or representation of this head is somewhat obscure, but
it may depict a raven. This detailed and compact sculpture encapsulates
the concept of a shaman traveling in the spirit realm, guided and accompanied
by his whale and possibly raven spirit helpers, en route to the spiritual
knowledge that will allow him to restore the health of a patient, know
the future, or ascertain the identity of a witch.
All Images and Text Copyright 2002, NorthwestCoast