Inuit Art Sculptures

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Role of the Bear in Inuit Art

Bears are one of the most popular topics within Inuit art. These creatures are often the subject of statues and symbolize the Inuit’s link with both the natural and the spiritual world. Their connection to Inuit spirituality stems from the Inuit belief that the universe is inhabited by human beings, dead beings known as ‘inuviniit’ and spirits, which are known as ‘tuurngait’. The Inuit believe that each human being has a spiritual essence ‘tarniq’ and a breath of life ‘arnirniq’, which are passed on to new human or animal bodies when somebody dies. In times gone by, shamans served as intermediaries between the human world, the world of dead beings and the spirit world. They received power and strength from tuurngaits in order to do this. The tuurngaits that helped the shamans often took the form of polar bears.

The Dancing Bear

Bears in Inuit carvings are frequently shown to be dancing. This is also related to the ancient spirituality of the Inuit shamans. When shamans needed to communicate with dead people, invisible entities or human beings in far away places, they danced whilst playing drums in order to summon the tuurngaits to assist them. When a tuurngait arrived, the visible appearance of the shaman would alter and his tarniq and arnirniq would merge together with those of the tuurngait, resulting in the shaman either acting like a bear or adopting the form of a bear whilst continuing to play the drums and dance.

The dancing bear requires more skill to carve than its non-dancing equivalent, as the entire stone carving is usually balanced on one foot of the bear, making these sculptures difficult to produce. Collectors are usually willing to pay more for this type of bear, with the Chronicle Herald reporting them selling at auction for as much as twenty thousand dollars. Not all dancing bears cost as much as this though. There are bears that are relatively cheap considering the level of craftsmanship that goes into their creation. Dancing bears are especially popular around Christmas time, as the fact that they are dancing adds a happy, carefree element to the statues that makes them the perfect festive ornaments. It is not uncommon for those looking for novel decorations for their homes to search for Christmas deals on these items in order to ensure that they have something to brighten up their households during December.

Other Bear Legends

Acting as spirit guides wasn’t the only skill that bears possessed back in times gone by. According to Inuit legend, in the age where man and beast enjoyed a closer co-existence, bears were able to transform into people and even utilise weapons, though they were still recognisable as bears because they always appeared much sturdier than regular humans. Many Inuit believed that when bears entered their dens in winter time, they removed their skin and adopted a human-like form. Perhaps this would explain the dwindling numbers of polar bears that are about today. Maybe some of them have simply shed their skins and integrated themselves into the human world.

There were also tales of bears transforming themselves into birds and blocks of ice in order to avoid being killed by hunters. Other legends told of bear spirits tormenting those who refused to share their food and delivering captured prey to those who were starving due to being outcast by their peers, displaying yet again the spiritual significance of these creatures. The bear was considered to be a magical animal, possessing a myriad of supernatural powers.

Bond Between Man and Bear

Although the Inuit hunted polar bears and polar bears occasionally killed Inuit, the Inuit still had a great respect for these creatures. There were a lot of similarities between the Inuit way of life and that of the polar bear. The process of selecting a site, constructing a den and then living in it parallels the building of an igloo and both polar bears and the Inuit hunted in order to survive. Perhaps the fact that bear and Inuit man were so alike can explain why the Inuit are so adept at tapping into the essence of these creatures in order to create ornate sculptures depicting their likeness. It is a tradition that spans far into the past and will no doubt continue well into the future.


by: Evelyn Robinson

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