Many 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 peoples
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
. Because 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.

'Soul Catcher' Amulet
Tlingit (probably Tantakwan, Southern Tlingit)
Hollowed and relief-carved bear femur with abalone shell inlay and attached leather thong,
ca. 1850-1870, 6" Long
Jeffrey Myers

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.

Ivory Amulet

Carved and Pierced Whale Tooth with Abalone Shell Inlay
ca. 1840-1860 3 1/3” Long
Provenance: 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.

At 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.

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