Collection Highlight E89967: Paint Bone

At first glance, it isn’t obvious what this object might be used for. This tool, affiliated with the Innu (then known as the Naskapi) cultural group, served as a painting stick to decorate robes and other clothing. This particular paint bone was collected from Ungava Bay, Quebec, Canada by Lucien M. Turner and accessioned into the museum in 1884. This child’s buckskin coat is one example of the kind of painting that may have been done with such a tool!

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Collection Highlight E10383: Narwhal Tooth Drinking-Tube

Intrepid explorer Captain Charles Francis Hall collected this Inuit drinking tube, carved from a narwhal tooth during one of three Arctic research expeditions he conducted during his lifetime. There are a number of objects in our collections that are made of or contain narwhal ivory. The material is very versatile and was used by the Inuit to make everything from belt buckles to decorative figures.

Motivated primarily by a desire to determine what became of Sir John Franklin’s 1840’s lost Arctic expedition, Capt. Hall initially headed north to find evidence of the crew’s fate. Along the way, and accompanied by a host of scientists and researchers, Capt. Hall interacted with Inuit people and collected both information and objects illustrative of indigenous life in the Arctic region. In 1865 Hall published an account of his first expedition, Life Among the Esquimaux: Being A Narrative of An Expedition In Search of Sir John Franklin In The Years 1860, 1861, and 1862, which offers an interesting look into the people and places Hall encountered on his first expedition, during which he discovered not Franklin’s expedition, but Martin Frobisher’s second while searching for a Northwest Passage to China.. Unfortunately, Capt. Hall’s final expedition was seemingly doomed—Hall himself died on board his ship off the coast of Greenland, and the remaining crew became stranded and were forced to shelter on an ice floe for over six months until being rescued.

  In total, Capt. Hall’s collection donated to the museum in 1871 consists of over 60 objects of various materials and purpose, collected in or near the Arctic. Capt. Hall’s endeavors invite us to think about how the motivations, resources, and practices behind the history of Arctic exploration shapes the knowledge we now have about the region and the peoples who have lived there successfully for centuries. Objects such as this seemingly non-descript drinking tube offer insights into how indigenous Arctic communities harvested and used materials, such as narwhal ivory, that are considered highly precious in other parts of the world.

To hear some Inuit perspectives on indigenous connections to the narwhal, check out our new exhibit “Narwhal: Revealing and Arctic Legend” which opened August 3rd!

Collection Highlight E2072: Drilling Apparatus

These three tools fit together to make a drill! The thin object with the metal nib (like a drill bit we might use today) is placed point-down on the object to be drilled, the fiber of the bow implement is wrapped around the drill bit, and the larger wooden piece is placed on the end of the drill bit to apply pressure and keep the bit steady. The bow is then pulled backwards and forwards rapidly so that the drill bit spins and generates friction—creating a hole! This drilling apparatus was collected by Roderick R. MacFarlane in the Northwest Territories of Canada and accessioned into the museum in 1866.

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Collection Highlight E176083: Painted Box

We know from the catalogue information that this incredible painted, wooden box was collected not just from the Yukon River Delta, but specifically from Pastolik. It was collected and donated by Edward Nelson and accessioned in 1897. Candace Greene, a North American ethnologist at NMNH, informed us that these boxes, primarily owned by men, were often used to hold tools. She also mentioned that the images painted on the inside of the lid are most likely meant to be viewed only by other men when the box is taken out on a fishing or work trip.

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Collection Highlight E260193: Child’s Toy

This delicate wooden object is a child’s game described in the catalogue information as a “Jumping-Jack”, made of carved wood and rope made of sinew, gut, or baleen. You can make Jack jump by pulling apart the two long handles and bringing them back together quickly to make the small carved figure in the middle turn flips,.  This toy was accessioned on 27th January, 1910 and was donated by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

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Collection Highlight E37877: Doll

This very beautiful doll was collected by Edward Nelson in Kaialigamut in the Kuskokwim Delta and accessioned in 1879. It is impressively carved and beautifully adorned in a small outfit of calico and fur that is also intricately beaded. The dolls in our circumpolar collections vary greatly in size and style!

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Collection Highlight E48851: Shuttlecock

This item from our collections perhaps seems unfamiliar at first, but if you take a closer look you might recognize a familiar object.  It’s a shuttlecock! Shuttlecocks, also referred to as “birdies”, are what get batted back and forth during a game of badminton. This shuttlecock has a head made of wound fibers, which serves as a weight, and a tail of feathers. The feathers, traditionally taken from only one wing of a bird, help keep the shuttlecock aerodynamic. These days we tend to use commercially manufactured plastic and rubber shuttlecocks. This object was donated by Edward Nelson, accessioned on Feb 9th, 1882, and collected near the Lower Yukon River.  

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Collection Highlight E153696: Painted Spoon

This is one of several beautifully painted wooden spoons in our collections from Alaska. This particular spoon was collected by J.H. turner and donated to the museum on March 9th, 1894 by the Bureau of American Ethnology. Many Circumpolar objects with varying shapes and uses have decorations in this style!

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Collection Highlight E352229: Bag- Wood and Dressed Skin


This small bag, made of wood or reeds and dressed animal skin, was donated to the museum in 1931! Though the catalog card does not identify a collector, we know it was donated by The Museum of the Academy of Sciences, Leningrad, Russia. Collected near the Aldan and Lena Rivers area in Southeastern Siberia, Russia, the bag is associated with the Yakut (or Sakha) culture. Bags of this type, typically made from ox hide, were used to transport fermented mare’s milk (koumiss)! ‘This bag couldn’t hold much koumiss!’ you may be saying. In fact, this particular bag is most likely a model or a child’s version of the typical full sized bag!

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