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Early shaman’s amulet carved from antler and inlaid with abalone shell fragments - Donald Ellis Gallery


Southeast Alaska

ca. 1820–40

antler, abalone shell

width: 5 ½"

Inventory # N3892


acquired by the Diker Collection, now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY


Collected by George T. Emmons
Harry Beasley, Cranmore House, London, United Kingdom, 1932
Roy G. Cole, London, United Kingdom
George Terasaki, New York, NY 1981
The Allen and Sally Wardwell Collection, New York, NY


Shamanistic Charms, Ethnologia Cranmoriensis, vol. 4, Emmons and Miles, 1939, pgs. 31-35
Tangible Visions, Wardwell, New York, Monacelli Press, 1996, pg. 181, pl. 231
Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2012, pl. 57
Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection, David Penney et al., New York, NY, Skira Rizzoli, 2015, pg. 42


Barbeau 1953, pg. 268, pl. 229 (top) for a charm likely by the same artist

Before the late 19th century, different forms of shamanism were widely practiced along the entire Northwest Coast. Shamans occupied a central role in personal and spiritual affairs, being responsible for healing the sick, ensuring abundant food supplies, warding off evil spirits and providing assistance during battle. Tlingit shamanism was particularly complex. A broad range of carvings were created to aid the shaman in matters of healing and divination, among them charms, soul catchers, rattles and masks. Shaman’s amulets generally depict helping spirits encountered during vision quests or dreams. Each amulet is unique, frequently composed of a main image intertwined with several subsidiary figures. In the outstanding example shown above, the main image likely represents an orca whale. In place of the dorsal fin sits a smaller avian figure, the hooked beak suggesting the head of an eaglet. Below the bird, crouching on the main creature’s belly, is a deeply incised embryonic image. Masterfully carved from antler, the entire amulet is inlaid with abalone shell. As a carved manifestation of complex transformational imagery, attributing definite identities to individual images is speculative in the absence of first-hand information. During healing ceremonies, the amulet would have been inhabited by the spirit helpers represented, and the powerful object often left with the patient to effect a cure. By the turn of the 20th century, missionaries, together with the US Navy, were making concerted efforts to eradicate shamanism among the Tlingit. Indeed, by the early 20th century most Tlingit had converted to Christianity, and shamanic practices had all but disappeared on the Northwest Coast. This magnificent amulet was collected by George T. Emmons, a self-trained ethnographer, photographer and US Navy Lieutenant active in Alaska from the 1880s into the early 20th century.  Emmons was a prodigious field collector, particularly among the Tlingit, and is responsible for assembling important collections for major American museums, most notably the American Museum of Natural History. Emmons also kept detailed notes on the objects he collected, providing valuable published information on their use, imagery and purpose.

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