Although created for a practical purpose, this “sewing implement” is rendered in the form of an exquisitely carved headless figure. It clearly exhibits a level of artful attention that transcends the daily routine of survival in the arctic environment that challenged the prehistoric Inuit who used it. Fine bone or ivory needles would have been hooked through a strip of hide that was fastened to a separately carved head. When the strip with needles was pulled through the hole at the shoulders it was protected within the cavity, with the head functioning as a stopper. Pulling the head would expose the hide strip, revealing the needles within.
Lack of specific provenance information renders any absolute cultural attribution impossible, though some tentative conclusions may be drawn based upon stylistic interpretation.
This form of needle case, with a separate head functioning as a toggle/pull for the hide insert, is typically associated with the Thule culture of Western Alaska. However the naturalism of the sculptural style and attention to form suggests a closer affinity with an earlier culture.
The application of the engraved compass-drawn circles relates to the design sensibilities of southwestern Alaska, and away from the Old Bering Sea culture. Notable similarities in the handling of the figurative form may be drawn with a large figure from the Pre-Koniag culture originating on Kodiak Island. (see: Ellis 1999, pg. 7). The treatment of the hands, abdomen, overall posture and proportions of these two figures, though not conclusively related, is intriguingly similar in approach.
Further investigation into the possible Pre-Koniag connection reveals several finely carved human heads with either vertically drilled holes which could facilitate attachment of the hide strip, or posts at the neck which could allow them to function as a kind of “stopper” for a needlecase. (see: Heizer 1956, pl. 83 & 84)
Despite the absence of its head, this sculpture possesses a self contained living and breathing quality that is found in the finest Inuit art of any cultural period.
Bill Wolf, November 2009