For hundreds of years, hunters have so feared Sedna that they would only whisper her name. Because of this fear, it is rare to see artistic images of the goddess.
Yet here she is, in a sculpture created by Abraham Anghik Ruben, a Canadian Inuit artist whose work has been collected in the exhibit “Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 2, features 23 massive pieces rarely seen in the United States that depict the great seafaring legends of the indigenous Inuit and the Viking and Norse settlers, carved from soapstone, ivory and whale bones.
Its appearance coincides with the 18th Inuit Studies Conference at the Smithsonian, which brings together scholars and Inuit leaders to study and discuss topics including archeology, environmental issues, health and culture.
Exhibition curator Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad says that when museum officials were looking for an exhibit to become a highlight of the conference, they decided to focus on Ruben’s “masterful” work.
Engelstad says the exhibit’s importance lies in its exploration of the relationship between humans and animals; its interpretations of spiritual and cultural history, mythology and legends; and its highlighting of the Inuit respect for the land. She calls its appearance here especially timely because it examines the potential catastrophic effects of climate change on Arctic sea ice, and in Washington “we are facing many of these political issues with regard to resource development and conservation.”
Last week, Ruben stood in the museum’s lobby next to the sculpture featuring Sedna, “Memories: An Ancient Past,” which is carved from a 600-pound bowhead whale bone that his nephew found on an Arctic coast. As a drum beats and tourists gather, he explains that one legend holds that Sedna was a beautiful maiden whose father threw her overboard into the Arctic Sea, then chopped off her fingers as she tried to cling to his boat.
“In the transition of drowning, she transforms and becomes a goddess,” says Ruben. “Her digits become the creatures of the sea — the seals, whales, walruses and fish.”
On the other side of the sculpture, Ruben explains, he has carved a shaman surrounded by spirit animals — bears, wolves and birds.
“The shaman has spirit helpers,” he says. The harsher the land and the fewer resources, the more helpers a shaman has. “In the Western Arctic, where I’m from, the shamans would have one or two spirit helpers, because the land is relatively benign compared to other parts of the Arctic. In Greenland, they would have up to 15 spirit helpers.”