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Sheldon Jackson Museum October 2022 Artifacts of the Month are Inupiaq and Saint Lawrence Island Hand Balls

by LAM Webmaster on 2022-10-21T11:28:00-08:00 in Artifact of the Month, Sheldon Jackson Museum | 0 Comments

four hand ballsThe Sheldon Jackson Museum’s October artifacts of the month are a selection of two Inupiaq hand balls and two Saint Lawrence Island hand balls from the Hands-on Loan Collection. The balls all date to the 20th century and are the kind used in the game hand ball.

Dyed seal skin, dyed dog hair, white plastic seed beads, and applique geometric shapes and cutouts of seals make each of the toys distinct. All measure four to six inches in diameter and are made with sealskin. Three of the four have fur embellishment. One is stuffed with seal fur while the content of the other three is unknown. Typically, the leather balls used in hand ball would be filled with sand or earth.

Unfortunately, the museum has limited information on the provenance of the artifact of the month pieces. The maker of the ball with white circular fur trim designs and white accent beads is documented as Adeline Annpayou from Gambell, Saint Lawrence Island. It was generously purchased from Chukotka-Alaska, Inc. by former museum shop manager Kristen Griffen, who donated it to the Hands-On Collection. The maker of the second St. Lawrence Island ball with the red circular dots made of dyed dog hair is unknown, but the background file states it was made in Savoonga, Saint Lawrence Island. The place of origin and maker of the two Inupiaq seal skin balls is unknown.

According to E.W. Nelson, in St. Michael during games of hand ball, young men of a village would form one side, throwing a ball from one to another, while the young women on the opposite side would attempt to get a hold of the ball and keep it for themselves. The game was usually played in May and June during long twilight periods and would sometimes last the entire night. On Saint Lawrence Island, the traditional game of keep away played between young men and women was carried out to celebrate the capture of the first whale of the season, in spring and autumn.

The Hands-On Loan Collection consists of 622 objects for school groups visiting the museum, for teachers to borrow and use in the classroom, or for homeschool teachers to use in homes across Alaska. Teachers may check out the majority of objects in the collection with advance notice. Learn more about the Hands-On Loan Collection and how this program has become more flexible in the wake of Covid-19.

The Sheldon Jackson Museum October artifacts of the month is on exhibit until October 31. The Sheldon Jackson Museum is currently open Wednesday-Saturday, 10 am-4 pm and by appointment only on Tuesdays. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, and free for ages 18 and under and active duty military and their families (with an ID). 

Nelson, Edward William. The Eskimo about Bering Strait. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.
White, Larson Jonella. “St. Lawrence Island: Sleeping Memories," edited by Aaron L. Crowell, Rosita Worl, Paul C. Ongtooguk, and Dawn D. Biddison, 2010, pp. 95.

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