Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
Alaska State Libraries, Archives & Museums
For Immediate Release
June 9, 2022
The Sheldon Jackson Museum’s June Artifact of the Month is a wooden tool box that Sheldon Jackson collected from Cape Prince of Wales in the late 19th century. The box is expertly made, of typical bentwood construction, and embellished with ivory and beads.
Inupiaq and Yup’ik tool boxes came in a variety of shapes and sizes and varied in terms of embellishment and handle type, but men’s boxes all served the same purpose–to store implements of all kinds including carving knives, chisels, polishing tools, and other woodworking tools, arrow points, spear points, and other small items. Women’s boxes were often used to store needle cases, sinew, fiber thread, scraps of skin, earrings, and other small objects.
Men made tool boxes for themselves and their wives by using bending, pegging, hollowing out, and mortising woodworking techniques. Using his crooked knife, a carver thins and shapes a piece of wood and grooves the edge intended to be the inner and lower section of the box or bowl. Over several days, the piece is steamed and bent into the desired form. The ends are beveled so that the join where they meet will be unnoticeable. Typically, the overlapping ends of the piece are stitched together with spruce or willow root or baleen. The ends of the root are secured into tiny slits in wood. With his hand or foot, the maker would press the bottom of the container into place in the rim’s prepared groove to make a tight fit. Lids of boxes were often attached with small rawhide loops. Bases of tool boxes would often be secured with wooden pegs and might be chamfered or beveled. Handles were often made with pieces of walrus ivory, sometimes incised or with strips of rawhide.
The June Artifact of the Month box’s sides are held tightly together through three vertical walrus ivory strips at the front and back of the box, sewn in place with a fine piece of rawhide, possibly from a seal. Many tool boxes have one to three vertical strips of walrus ivory, like the June artifact, to keep the bentwood walls secured. The lid of the tool box is secured to the base with two pieces of rawhide. A rawhide loop extends off the front top of the cover for fastening the box closed via a small notch protruding from the walrus ivory strip below. A relatively long piece of plaited cordage is attached to the rawhide loop – its purpose may have been to loop around the box to further secure closure. The top of the lid features four carved out grooves that run around its entirety and four large, round, semi-translucent blue inlaid beads set on either side of a leather strap handle.
Designs and embellishment of tool boxes could vary greatly. Some boxes were stained or painted, carved with grooves, or left unfinished. Some lids have walrus ivory pegs or beads inlaid. Although the June Artifact of the Month does not feature any design inside, many Yup’ik and Inupiaq box lids often have graphics painted on the underside of the lid. Designs on the inside of box lids would have been visible only upon opening. In this sense, a box lid’s design is more private than the designs one would see on the inside of a bentwood dish or ladle, or on a drill bow.1
The Sheldon Jackson Museum June Artifact of the Month will be exhibited until June 30. The museum has nearly a dozen tool boxes in its collection. The majority are Inupiaq, but only one is documented as being collected from the Cape Prince of Wales region, and only two have inlaid beads on their lids. The public can see the June artifact of the month during hours of operation – currently Monday-Sunday, 9 am-4:30 pm. General admission is currently $9, $8 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of either the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums
Nelson, Edward W. The Eskimo about Bering Strait. Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.
Kaplan, Susan and William Fitzhugh. Inua: The Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo. Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.
 Imagery on the inside of tool boxes tended to fall in one of three categories. The first typical kind of imagery on the underside of tool box lids showed a portion of a myth or a story or mythological beasts. A second common kind of graphic seen on box lids were hunting scenes showing the use of traditional weapons and rifles and sea mammals such as beluga, whales, and seal being struck with harpoons from a kayak. Sex is a third common subject in box lid graphics. There may be male or female genitalia, animals or mythical beasts with erections or couples copulating. Such graphics may represent a man’s family life cycle and show scenes of sex, pregnancy, birth, and adulthood. Also common were paintings of European or American traders.
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