Alaska Harpoon Rest:
Supported by Bears, Whales, and Chains
Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Enika Selby
This Iñupiaq (also called Eskimo or Inuit) harpoon rest (Museum Object Number: NA4796) came to the Penn Museum from Sledge Island, Alaska, a tiny island off the Western coast. It is hand carved from walrus ivory, with effigies of two polar bears and two whales. The item was collected during the Wanamaker Expedition to the Artic, Seward Peninsula and Siberia, and sold to the Museum by William Blair Van Valin.
This collection was discovered in 1912 by one of Van Valin’s Iñupiaq students, Johnnie Tumichuk, who exposed a cave holding the entire whaling outfit. Local people identified the outfit as spiritually powerful items belonging to a shaman who had disappeared. Van Valin recognized it as a rare and valuable collection of exotic artifacts. The sale to the Museum was brokered by E.W. Hawkes, who hoped to gain a fellowship for graduate study at Penn.
My initial questions focused on the materials used to make this item, the Indigenous meanings behind the symbols and construction, and the general use. What type of wood, animal parts, unidentified materials, and ivory were used to create this object? What do the bears and whales mean and how do they relate to weaponry? How was this object used with a harpoon to effectively hunt?
A closer look reveals intricate details. The torsos of the bears are carved from two pieces of ivory, with carvings of whales on the outside of each half. Sandwiched between the halves is a flat, hard, porous, material, drilled through by wooden pegs that secure the halves together. The most interesting features are the chain links that hang from the figures. Not a single link shows discontinuity, which indicates that they were all carved out of a single piece of ivory. Additionally, the last link on each side has the tail end of what seems to be a whale. Thus, the entire hunting apparatus is surrounded by animals, suggesting the physical and spiritual importance of these creatures .
Basic research reveals the answers to some of these questions. A harpoon rest is attached to the kayak or umiak (on the front or sides of the boat) and used to hold the base of the harpoon in place after the spear was thrust into the whale. Literature on other “Eskimo” harpoon rests mentions that most were made of walrus tusk with holes to lace sinew through, which would eventually be tied and secured to the boat. The Penn Museum’s rest has these features, but also has chain links underneath the body of the harpoon rest. Perhaps the chains secure the rest to the bow of the boat, or assist in holding the rest steady while balancing a harpoon that has already speared a whale.
Beautiful Objects for the Hunt
Historically, the preparation of whaling tools took place within a dwelling known as a kargi. This was the central location of the hunting operation and was assigned to a whaling captain, or umialik. This place was used for social gathering and dancing, and also used for the making and mending of spiritual equipment and weapons. Aesthetics are crucial to whaling rituals, because it is believed that whales are attracted to beautiful things, and can be coaxed towards the hunters. Thus, whaling equipment must be in pristine condition. Special items were created to aid in the hunt, so these chains have both practical and spiritual dimensions. Whale emblems are believed to be imbued with magical qualities that can encourage the whales to reveal themselves to hunters.
Several of the harpoon rests from Sledge Island have chain links, but most harpoon racks from the region lack this feature. Perhaps whaling kits belonging to shamans were more closely associated with the spiritual realm, and therefore displayed extra charms. These links rattle, and the sound is believed to attract animals. Chain link charms and whale carvings were also carried in the umiak for success and luck. Thus, the harpoon rest bridges physical and sacred realms, as both a hunting tool and a spiritual symbol.
A comparable harpoon rest from Barrow, Alaska, housed at the Smithsonian Institution, has carved images of mythical bears with small paws and a giant eagle, depicted in oral tradition as a creature used to hunt whales. The comparison between these harpoon rests shows the variety of spiritual symbolism displayed on whale hunting equipment.
Spiritual significance is not just portrayed through symbols, it is also connected to the whales themselves. Among Inuit people, whales are associated with the spirits of young women. Certain ritual equipment was made for the wife of the umialik such as a, “wooden bucket with ivory ornaments and chains.” Just such a bucket was found by Van Valin. The wife would use her charmed bucket to pour water on the umiak to give it a drink, as she would also do with the whale once it was brought onshore. These ritual measures were taken to ensure the success of the operation and the safe return of men. Thus, chains used by women may be symbolically comparable to the ivory chains taken on board the umiak and used in the hunting process. This shows the importance of women and their spiritual roles in the hunt, making whaling a ritual that involves both genders.
By combining material analysis with archival visits and surveys of existing research, I was able to recover important understandings about: the history of the harpoon rest; its creation and significance; related objects in other museums; and features that incorporate women into hunting rituals.
However, some questions still remain. I was curious about the material sandwiched between the two independent pieces of ivory tusk, and I found no mention of anything like it in the literature. After close examination, I believe, from its porous appearance, that it seems likely that it could be whale bone. From an Iñupiaq perspective, this would be an important inclusion of, not just symbols of the whale, but part of the whale itself.
Thus, by dedicating time for simple research and visual analysis, the story of the Inuit harpoon rest began to emerge. The questions that arose while examining this object revealed aspects for further investigation that might otherwise have been missed. Most significantly, this harpoon rest is but one piece of an entire whaling kit. Each piece has its own distinct aesthetics, purpose, and meaning, and the whole kit reflects the complexity of whale hunting. A more complete understanding of the history and details of Eskimo hunting equipment could be recovered by turning to the knowledge held by the Iñupiat today. Whale hunting is still an active practice, and traditional beliefs are still preserved in oral traditions. Any museum story about Iñupiaq whaling tools is incomplete without including insights about the people—and the animals—who made the object.
 Kaplan, Susan A., Richard H. Jordan, and Glen W. Sheehan. “An Eskimo Whaling Outfit From Sledge Island, Alaska.” Expedition 26.2: 16-23. Jan. 1984.
 Van Valin correspondence, folder 1/2, October 1912. America: Alaska, Point Barrow. Penn Museum Archives.
 Digby, Adrian. “An Eskimo Harpoon Rest from Alaska.” Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, February 27, 2015.
 Kaplan, Susan A. et al. 1984.
 Burch, Ernest S., and Werner Forman. The Eskimos. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 1988.
 Crowell, Aron L. The Art of Iñupiaq Whaling: Elders’ Interpretations of International Polar Year Ethnological Collections. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2009.
 National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian, Washington, DC. Ivory whaling charms, Barrow, 1881–1883, Murdoch–Ray collection.
 Crowell, Aron L. 2009.