As a rule the carvings are crude representations of various animals and other animate objects, and have no high value as objects of art, but occasionally there arises a real artist, who when encouraged will produce wonderfully artistic models of the various animals, men, dogsleds and almost anything suggested to him” (p.176). As we know that the Neptune wintered in Cape Fullerton – and ivory carvings were mostly done during the long hours of winter – it seems safe to assume that these were done by Inuit from the area around Cape Fullerton.
There is corroboration for this assumption from another source. During the winter of 1903-04 the Neptune was stationed very close to the Era, an American whaling ship commanded by Captain George Comer. In his diaries Comer makes several references to Commander Low and his ship’s doctor. The entry for Thursday, April 21, 1904 reads as follows: “Commander Low and the doctor were over. I gave them some ivory carvings to take home to friends” (Ross, 1984, p.111). On January 20, 1904 he mentions “my chief native Harry (Teseuke) has been making some ivory carvings for Commander Low, which he took over this evening” (Ross, 1984, p.90).
The latter passage relates directly to an entry by Borden who, in his diary of the cruise, mentions once briefly: “Harry, native, made me a few figures from ivory.” (entry from January 12, 1904). Harry was the chief of the Aivilingmiut and Comer’s “head native.” One of the carvings in Borden’s collection is actually signed “Harry”.
Whether Harry incised the signature himself we will never know. In another place Borden comments about Captain Comer: “Although peculiar in many respects, he is a very good hearted man and altogether I have fared pretty well at his hands, having received before some carved ivory and a few things in the way of curios” (entry from May 17,1904). In addition there is mention in a memo from his wife, Ethel Borden, of “carvings and artifacts received as appreciation of care of Eskimo.” So this meagre information, in total, reveals that the artifacts in Borden’s collection were partially made by “Harry,” as well as by grateful patients. From A.P. Low’s comments one can deduce that he made suggestions regarding themes to Inuit whom he considered endowed with artistic talent. The themes for the group of seven figures, engaged in various activities related to the hunt, may have been suggested by him; these figures are most likely by Harry, Comer’s main assistant.
In style these miniatures differ from those from Labrador. They have none of the elaborate red and black markings on parka decorations that are such a distinctive feature of Labrador ivories from the late 19th century. They are generally larger and there is a noticeable attempt to capture movement and gestures. They are similar to Labrador ivories, however, in the use of some black colouring to indicate hair and facial features. This technique carried over into early miniatures from the contemporary period, especially in the work of artists like Sheokjuk Oqutaq and Peesee Oshuitoq from Cape Dorset.
Franz Boas, in one comment, refers specifically to this area around Southampton Island and the west coast of Hudson Bay: “the Aivilik and Kinipetu of Southampton Island make a great many carvings in ivory and soapstone” (1901, p.113).
I agree with Martijn’s assumption that employment with whalers such as Captain Comer or explorers such as A.P. Low and Dr. Borden probably led to an increase in carving in response to the demand of the ships’ crews to purchase “keepsakes”, as Martijn calls them, to take home after a successful hunt (1964, p.556).
Thus it becomes clear that Inuit, certainly from this region of the eastern Arctic, were accustomed to producing souvenirs for an outside culture long before 1948. When Houston travelled across the Arctic encouraging people to carve, he continued a tradition that had started with the first contact between the Inuit and intruders into their world.
Among the long list of explorers, whalers, missionaries, traders, scientists, anthropologists, RCMP officers, and government officials were A.P. Low and Dr. Borden, who received the group of carvings shown here both as gifts and as private commissions.
The next step in research would be to study the 30 ivory carvings which Captain Comer collected between 1902 and 1910 for the American Museum of Natural History, upon the request of Franz Boas, ethnologist at that institution.