Song of the Sea

Explore the past and present of Alaska Native walrus ivory carving from St. Lawrence Island

Map of St. Lawrence Island (2019) by Bureau of Ocean Energy ManagementOriginal Source: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

St. Lawrence Island

St. Lawrence Island (Sivuqaq), the largest island in the Bering Sea, sits in frigid Arctic waters some 120 miles from mainland Alaska and only 38 miles from mainland Siberia. It is approximately 100 miles long and averages 20 to 30 miles in width. St. Lawrence Island has been continuously inhabited for the past two-thousand years, though a severe famine in the winter of 1878-79 decimated the island’s population.

Savoonga and Gambell

St. Lawrence Island consists of only two villages. The village of Savoonga has a population of 671, while the village of Gambell has a population 697.

St. Lawrence Island House (1898)Original Source: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

St. Lawrence Island Yupik

The inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island call themselves the Yupiget (Yupik). They share several cultural affinities with the neighboring Siberian Yupik people of Russia. Specifically, these cultural relationships include language, kinship structure (patrilineal descent and clans), material culture, and, prior to Christian missionization, religious practices. 

Whale Boats (Umiaks)Original Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Whale Boats (Umiaks)

Boats such as these were historically used by Yupik people to hunt bowhead whales. They are made with a wooden frame and covered in skins. When not in use they are stored upside down. 

Members of the Rock Whaling CrewOriginal Source: Arctic Slope Regional Corporation

Yupik Livelihood and Culture

Yupik people rely heavily on sea mammals for their livelihood and material culture. St. Lawrence Island lies amidst migration routes for the Pacific walrus, several species of whale including bowhead, finback, gray or summer whale, in addition to spotted seal, ringed seal, and the bearded seal.

Sea Mammals - Sea Lion with Fish, Seal, Ringed Seal (1981) by Paul Apangalook (Yupik), Frank Okhtokiyuk (Yupik), and Jerry Tungiyan (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Sea Mammals

Sea mammals have been the traditional diet, supplemented with roseroot, salmon, and the occasional polar bear. 

Walruses by R. AngellOriginal Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ivory Carving History

For thousands of years, Alaska Native carvers utilized Pacific walrus, fossil mammoth, and mastodon ivory to produce a large variety of tools to help them survive the difficult and often hostile environment. 

Walrus Ivory

Ancient seafaring peoples obtained walrus ivory from the tusks, or large canine teeth, of the animal. They acquired fossil mammoth and mastodon ivory incidentally from the tundra or seashore as it eroded out of permafrost soils during warm weather.

Punuk Islands Ivory Deposit by Captain Budd ChristmanOriginal Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Ivory Deposits

The swirling currents of the Bering Sea deposit the remains of marine mammals on the beaches of the Punuk Islands as well as nearby St. Lawrence Island. 

Ayveq (Walrus) (2019) by Ben Pungowiyi (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Walrus Ivory Carving

Yupik peoples have harvested walrus ivory and whalebones from deposits for centuries for use in carving.

Harpoon CounterbalanceOriginal Source: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

From Functional to Ornate

The very earliest ivory implements were purely functional and typically undecorated. Around 200 B.C., however, people of the Old Bering Sea culture (200 B.C.- A.D. 800) began producing ornate pieces of carved ivory – like harpoon socket-pieces and counterweights, ulus (cutting tool), and snow goggles – bearing graceful curving lines and circles surrounding mounded knobs. 

Ancient Amulets and Figures from St. Lawrence Island by Bruce BartholomewOriginal Source: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Museum of the North

Prehistoric Ivory Carving: Ancient Amulets

Living on the islands and headlands of Bering Strait, they used bow drills and stone burins to create these animated surface decorations. Over time, subsequent prehistoric peoples like the Ipiutak (A.D. 400-900) and Punuk (A.D. 800-1200) employed metal scribing tools and compasses to create precise circle and dot features on ivory.  

Woman's Knife (Ulaaq)Original Source: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Decorated Tools: Woman's Knife (Ulaaq)

Decorated tools served practical functions. If objects were embellished it was to help “please” or satisfy the spirits of game animals and other unseen forces that were believed to control local environments, because they were attracted by beautiful things. Since ancient times, ornamented objects helped guarantee human survival in a sometimes unforgiving Arctic world.

U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear and Steam Ship Corwin (1914-06-01)Original Source: U.S. Coast Guard Archives

Ivory Carving Trade

In the mid-1800s, many prehistoric ivory artifacts, which originated from ancient village sites around the Bering Strait, appeared in the hands of Alaska Native collectors. Over time, Alaska Natives exchanged these objects with American whalers, teachers, and traders for money and goods. Eventually, these individuals passed them on to museum curators who considered them as works of “art” fit for museum displays. 

Gambell House and Sailors from U.S. Revenue Cutter "Bear" (1919)Original Source: U.S. Coast Guard Archives

Trade and Artistic Traditions

Although sales and exchanges of fossil ivory objects became a regular part of Alaska Native commerce by the early 20th century, the arrival of American whalers in 1848 transformed local artistic traditions of ivory carving.

St. Lawrence Island Bird CarvingsOriginal Source: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Museum of the North

19th and Early 20th Centuries: Selling to Sailors

Small carvings were among the first made by Yupik people for sale to sailors in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Seafaring men desired mementos of their travels to take home, and they purchased artifacts and commissioned new objects of walrus ivory from local carvers, including parasol handles, pipes, canes, napkin rings, salt and peppershakers, and other objects. [1]

Cribbage Board (1981) by Miller Campbell (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Scrimshaw Carving and Engraving Techniques

Whalers introduced scrimshaw carving and engraving techniques. This resulted in the development of cribbage boards, and a new pictorial style emerged where modeled human and animal figures appeared more lifelike. During this period of artistic transformation, local Alaska Native carvers also began signing their works for the first time. [2]

Birds - Owl, Ducks, Eagle (1981) by Gordon Oozeveseuk (Yupik), Allen Kulukhon (Yupik), and Lane Iyakitan (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Mid-20th Century: Animal Carvings

Traditionally, Alaska Native carvers produced various species of animals for toys, game pieces, and amulets. In the mid-20th century, carvings of birds and other animals became increasingly popular among collectors. 

Hunter in Kayak (2019) by Edwin Noongwook (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

1970s: Scenes of Everyday Life

As the marketplace expanded in the 1970s, scenes of everyday life began to appear. Dog teams, hunting and underwater scenes, and people engaged in various activities became common.  

Momma’s Boy (2019) by Ike Kulowiyi (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Raw Materials: Walrus Tusk

Walrus tusk is the primary natural material used by Alaska Natives for ivory carving. The Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island classify walrus ivory into three general categories: new, beached, and old.

Dinner (2019) by Ike Kulowiyi (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Walrus Ivory Types

New ivory comes from recently hunted walruses. Walrus tusk found buried in beach sand, the sea bottom, or terrestrial soil is beached ivory. Old ivory refers to artifacts repurposed for new carving.

Beached Ivory

Beached ivory type may display varying degrees of coloration – brown, reddish-brown, or gray – depending on the tannins and minerals from the surrounding substrate. 

Pacific Walrus (2010) by Bill HickeyOriginal Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

New Ivory

Some artists prefer to carve new ivory obtained from female walruses. Males often fight one another, and their tusks become broken or display deep cracks. Female tusks are more slender and less bulky than male tusks, and are not as prone to cracking.    

Bowhead Whale with CalfOriginal Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Bowhead Whales

The bowhead whale is one of the primary food sources for the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island. They hunt the whales in the seas surrounding the island during their spring migration north. Whalebone and whale baleen are also utilized by Alaska Natives in their carving. 

Bowhead Whales (1980/1981) by Harry Koozaata (Yupik) and Wilbur Booshu (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Whalebone and Baleen

Whalebone is typically aged for years or even decades before use due to its strong odor when fresh. Both bone and baleen are often incorporated as a secondary material in carvings made of walrus ivory, although they are occasionally used alone. Ribs, discs, and whale vertebrae are commonly used in carvings of shaman figures, owls, and walrus. Baleen is often used in a polished form as an inlay material for eyes in ivory carvings; it is the primary material used in carvings of whaling boats, orcas, and loons. 

King Island Carver (1949) by E.P. HaddonOriginal Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Carrying on the Tradition of Ivory Carving

Bering Strait artists continue to carry on the ancient tradition of ivory carving. Before the advent of electric carving tools, like Dremel and Foredom units, artists worked ivory in vises with hacksaws, coping saws, and hand files ranging from course to fine. 

Ben PungowiyiOriginal Source: Kawerak, Inc.

Contemporary Carvers

St. Lawrence Island Yupik carver Benjamin Pungowiyi has explained why it is exceedingly important to pass on these ancient traditions to the next generation of carvers: “Carving has been with us for thousands of years, and [it] should continue as a representation of our culture into the future.” 

Polar Bear (1981) by Daniel Iyakitan (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Popular Themes of Contemporary Carving

Today, Alaska Native ivory carvers produce incredibly diverse works, and some of the popular themes include: animals, activity scenes, transformation scenes, and ancient artifacts or human figurine replicas. 

Sea Otter (1981) by Aaron Oseuk (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior


Walruses, seals, whales, and birds are perhaps the most common carving subjects today. They sometimes sit on supporting stands created from natural materials, like whalebone, baleen, or ivory. 

Woman Dancer (2018) by Edwin Noongwook (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Hunting, Wildlife, Human Activity Scenes

Many contemporary Alaska Native carvers actively hunt throughout the year, and perform traditional dances and drum at community events. These activities often inspire the dynamic and lively carvings they create.

Pacific Walrus by Bill HickeyOriginal Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ivory Laws

The Pacific walrus is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.) and may only be harvested by coastal dwelling Alaska Natives. Only Alaska Natives can legally carve walrus ivory harvested and sold after 1972. 

Chess Set: Land Mammals versus Aquatic Mammals (1981) by Lane Iyakitan (Yupik)Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), U.S. Department of the Interior

Alaska Native Ivory

Once carved and sold, anyone may resell Alaska Native art and craftwork made of legally harvested walrus ivory. However, efforts to curb the trade of illegally harvested elephant ivory have negatively affected Alaska Native communities who rely on sales of walrus ivory carving to sustain their local economies and cultures. To learn more about Pacific walrus ivory and carving, please consult the IACB’s consumer education brochure Alaska Native Ivory.

Credits: Story

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board would like to acknowledge the following organizations who assisted with this exhibition:
- University of Alaska, Museum of the North
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Anchorage Alaska Office
- National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
- Kawerak, Inc.
- Arctic Slope Regional Corporation

[1] Smith, J.G.E. 1980. Arctic Art: Eskimo Ivory. New York: Museum of the American Indian. Pg. 13.
[2] Lipton, Barbara. 1977. Survival: Life and Art of the Alaskan Eskimo. Newark and New York: The Newark Museum and The American Federation of Arts. Pg. 30.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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