An archetypal image which was carved from the tusk of the subject itself, this walrus effigy was probably used as a protective or propitiatory amulet by a hunter. The floating, symmetrical pose of its age-spotted form almost seems to suggest the appearance of an abstract human figure, evoking an impression of dreamlike transformation.
Animal spirits were of great importance to Arctic peoples, whose lives depended upon animals surrendering their own. This was a profound relationship of sacrifice and trust that the hunter was loath to betray. Charm images such as this were created and carried to help guide the hunter and to call the animal to him in the proper way, ensuring the continuance of their metaphysical bond. Amulets could also confer certain characteristics and abilities of an animal to its bearer, and figurines were often sewn into clothing or attached to a belt so that the wearer could remain under their influence at all times.
With the introduction of Christianity to Alaska in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, amulets became symbols of unsanctified spiritual interaction. Branded with social stigma, they gradually fell out of favor among Arctic peoples and disappeared from common use. While detailed knowledge regarding traditions of amulet use has since been lost, the practice continues on a smaller scale in certain regions of the Arctic, sheltered from public knowledge.
For an almost identical example, complete with flippers, in the Rock Foundation Collection, and almost certainly by the same hand, see Upside Down: Arctic Realities Fig 18 p105 by Edmund Carpenter et al. The Rock Foundation example was exhibited at UPSIDE DOWN ARCTIC REALITIES (THE MENIL COLLECTION, HOUSTON, TX, April 2011 - July 2011) and UPSIDE DOWN: LES ARTIQUES (MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY, PARIS, FRANCE, September 2008 - January 2009)