Her face is tucked under a solid wave inside a whalebone. She is Sedna, the sea goddess who lives in the cold waters of the Arctic, where she is feared and revered by hunters and those traveling on the sea ice. It is said that when she is angered, she causes famine by withholding sea animals from hunters and whalers.
According to Inuit legend, the only way to soothe Sedna is to send a shaman into the depths of the ocean to comb her hair, which has become tangled by the sins of man. Only then, they say, will she release the sea creatures so that life may go on.
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.”
Ruben says the focus of the show, which includes work going back 20 years, is twofold: “to give my own personal portrayal of Inuit life, myths and the stories of my own upbringing” and to “tell the stories of contact between the Inuit and Vikings.”
Ruben sees a connection between Inuit shamanism and Norse mythology. “The ancient god of war, Odin in the old Germanic mythology, is the quintessential shaman,” Ruben says. “He was known as a shape-shifter. He was a visionary. He sought out experiences that would have enhanced his knowledge of the world around him.”
Ruben, whose ancestry is Inuvialuit — which means Inuit who live in the western Arctic — says he is descended from a long line of shamans.
“The shaman is an intermediary between the physical and spiritual world. But he also carries on oral traditions, myths and legend,” Ruben explains. “He must learn weather patterns. The training of a gifted shaman has many facets. It is a lifetime of training. This was the world of my grandparents.”
The sculptor was born in 1951, in a camp 35 miles inland from the coastal settlement of Paulatuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories, more than 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. Ruben’s father, William Esoktak Ruben, was a hunter; his mother, Bertha Thrasher, was a storyteller and “keeper of cultural traditions.”
As a young child, Ruben traveled with his parents as they hunted caribou, polar bears and beluga whales. “My childhood was life on the land. We were basically nomadic people. We traveled by dog team up until the early ’60s. When you travel out on the land, a different rhythm takes place. This is where stories and oral traditions and beliefs mix.”
In the mid-1950s, the Canadian government removed Inuit children from their families and forced them into residential schools run by Anglican and Catholic churches. There, the children were forbidden to speak their native language. Many were abused.
Ruben was 7 when he was sent to school. “The best description would be a feeling of being shell-shocked,” he says. “When they brought us in, we were stripped of clothing, showered and changed into new garments and went to roll call. By the time that was done, I had forgotten my parents’ names.”
Ruben calls his experience at the residential school, which laid the foundation for his art, “the dark night of my soul.”
“You hear the stories of the suffering artist,” Ruben says. “In order for him to get inspiration, he needs to suffer. Some impose suffering on themselves to get that experience. Others have that as a life experience. That is where mine comes from. I had experiences that a child should not have.” These experiences later found expression in works such as a soapstone sculpture called “The Last Goodbye,” which portrays Ruben’s mother hugging her children before they were sent away.
Ruben spent 11 years at the boarding school, leaving in 1970 without completing 10th grade. It would be almost 40 years before the Canadian government would formally apologize to the thousands of indigenous people who as children had been sent to schools designed to, as the government put it, “kill the Indian in the child.”
After leaving the school, Ruben happened to tour the University of Alaska, where he found himself at the fine arts building, looking through the windows at the students inside. “I knew then that was where I wanted to be.”
He studied at the university’s Native Art Center in the early 1970s and learned to tap his Inuit background and knowledge of the land, animals, spirit travels and dreams for his creations. His work has been featured by the National Gallery of Canada, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
In an artist statement in the exhibit’s catalog, Ruben writes: “I have chosen to be a story teller for my people through the medium of sculpture. . . . I no longer speak my mother tongue, yet I need to do my part in carrying on the stories and cultural myths, legends and spiritual legacy of our people. My hope is that my hands and spirit within will allow me this one gesture.”
is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian through Jan. 2. Fourth Street & Independence Ave SW. (202) 633-6644. www.nmai.si.edu/home.