Carving, Cubs, and Climate

by Rebeccah Swerdlow

M.A. Student

Department of Art History

University of Delaware

Polar Bear and Cubs (1998) by Kingwatisiaq Jaw (1962-2012, commonly referred to as King), includes animals in their environment, like many popular depictions of the Arctic (fig. 1). King’s sculpture provides additional insight into Inuit culture, while touching on themes of materiality, ecology, and modernity in the Arctic. Examining this and other sculptures in their cultural and geographical contexts helps to illustrate the resilience of Inuit amid the rapid changes brought about by colonialism and climate change.

Polar Bear and Cubs portrays a mother polar bear and her cubs walking across a smooth, unidentified landmass that could represent an ice drift or part of the Arctic ice pack. In either case, the work indicates the polar bear’s natural habitat.[i] Carvings such as this depend not only on the detailed, technical skill of the artist, but also on the availability of materials that are specific to the region. Jaw carved Polar Bear and Cubs from a single piece of locally-sourced black serpentine, one of the most common stones used for Inuit carving. (Walrus ivory is popular and highly coveted, but stone is less likely to fracture and more easily carved into a single sculpture.[ii]) Moreover, the hardness and initial shape of the material helps the artist determine the subject and form of the sculpture. King uses these creative processes to depict a subject that would be familiar to Inuit and global audiences, as the polar bear is both important to Indigenous culture and a popular icon of the Arctic environment.

While Polar Bear and Cubs was made for a modern art market, it reflects the historical and cultural significance of Inuit sculpture. From as early as 500 BCE, Arctic artists relied on carving as a means of producing and decorating essential hunting tools, sacred objects, and household utensils, including harpoon heads, burial masks, and combs.[iii] In the eighteenth and


[i]Andrew E. Derocher and Wayne Lynch, Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 55-59.

[ii] Emily E. Auger, The Way of Inuit Art: Aesthetics and History in and Beyond the Arctic (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005), 101-105.

[iii] Janet Catherine Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips Native North American Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 152-155

nineteenth centuries, Inuit contact with European communities—largely Russian, French, and English explorers—increased trade and related cultural exchanges. In order to acquire clothing and supplies from these traders, Inuit carvers began producing and selling ivory, bone, and stone carvings.[i] The Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade resulted in the rapid depletion of animals and resources native to the environment. Under pressure from the Canadian government, Indigenous communities moved from semi-nomadic camps into permanent settlements in the twentieth century.[ii] As a result of colonization, the core of the Inuit economy shifted from hunting to producing works of art for profit.[iii] After World War II, Inuit sculpture became comparatively more secularized for a global market, but subjects such as Arctic people, animals, and spiritual traditions remained popular. Artists often shape the sculpture’s aesthetic to appeal to both their personal artistic style and their market.[iv] Thus, sculptures such as Polar Bear and Cubs are an exercise of the artist’s agency in asserting cultural ideas, individual preferences, and economic independence.

Like many Inuit carvers represented in the Museums Collections at the University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press, King comes from a family of artists who taught him how to carve. His older brothers, Mathew Saviadjuk, Pootoogook Jaw, and Salomonie Jaw, are all carvers with their own interests and styles. The artist began carving at the age of eight but did not do so professionally until his early thirties, in addition to working as an industrial mechanic in the Nanasivik Mine and a certified carpenter.[v] The sharing of knowledge and craft emphasizes bonds in Inuit communities. The passing down of technique and skill is not only valued for its earning potential, but also serves as a bridge between individuals and age groups. With each passing generation, Inuit artists experience shifts in lifestyle, environment, and technology due to


[i] Auger, The Way of Inuit Art, 101-105.

[ii] James R. Miller and Zach Parrott, “Indigenous-British Relations Pre-Confederation,” Historica Canada, last modified May 26, 2015,

[iii] George Swinton, “Inuit Art,” Historica Canada, last modified October 11, 2016,

[iv] Canadian Eskimo Arts Council, Sculpture/Inuit. Sculpture of the Inuit: masterworks of the Canadian Arctic (Toronto: Published for the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council by the University of Toronto Press, 1971), 36-41.

[v] Spirit Wrestler Gallery, “Kingwatsiak (King) Jaw,” accessed March 7, 2018,

globalization. The work of contemporary Inuit artists such as King reflects the blending of traditional values with the fluid cultural exchanges of the twenty-first century.[i]

Polar bears are one of the most popular animals featured in Inuit carvings, although they range in form and medium. Before the modern market, bears appeared in figurines or masks or even hunting weapons, which often show a high degree of detail to highlight the animal’s anatomical structure. Inuit hunted polar bears for their skins and meat and used the remainder of the body as much as possible. The skins were used for clothing and protection from the cold while the bear’s meat fed the community and their dogs. In some Inuit communities, clothing made from polar bear skin is a status symbol.[ii] While Inuit relied on hunting animals as a resource, they also deferred to an animal’s spirit. Because the human and the polar bear were thought to have an interchangeable spirit, killing such a powerful animal required a worthy hunter. Furthermore, a bear may resemble a human; both can walk on two legs and consume plants and animals. Inuit respect for polar bears resulted in strict hunting practices and rituals that esteemed the animals so that Inuit could continue to hunt it.[iii] Some scholars have suggested that frequent historical depictions of such a powerful and dangerous animal represent the spirit of the polar bear rather than the animal itself.[iv]

Inuit stories commonly feature polar bears that have the same cognitive abilities as humans, can speak with Inuit, and exhibit supernatural abilities. For example, The Great Bear, recorded in 1921 by Danish-Inuit anthropologist Knud Rasmussen, tells the story of a woman who stumbles upon a home full of bears in the form of humans. They transform into bears when they put on their skins to leave their home, and these bears punish humans when they feel threatened or disrespected. The story even mentions a bear striking dogs into the sky to form a constellation, thus demonstrating its connection to the supernatural.[v]


[i] Land of Ice, Hearts of Fire: Inuit Art and Culture (University Gallery. University of Delaware, 2003), 9-10.

[ii] Ian Stirling, Polar Bears (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 30.

[iii] Ibid., 31-32.

[iv] Ibid., 29.

[v] Ibid., 33.

In addition to its many cultural meanings, King’s sculpture represents Arctic ecology during a period of growing public awareness of climate change. Throughout colonial encounters, people from outside of the Arctic have assigned the region various definitions, ranging from barren land to melting ice caps. Environmentalists seeking to raise awareness of climate change often cite the polar bear as a casualty of habitat and resource loss and employ the animal as a symbol for conservation. Yet such images often neglect Indigenous perspectives on the ecology of the Arctic region. Furthermore, southern cultures that are physically removed from Arctic communities tend to view Inuit anachronistically and, in turn, inaccurately.[i] Social anthropologist Zoe Todd (Métis) makes a candid point:

Such heavy environmental advocacy around the climate and the Arctic as commons, in turn, has helped polar bears to become one of the most instantly recognizable symbols of climate change for many people around the globe…. Ironically, when climate change and the Arctic act as mega-categories, they can quickly erase arctic Indigenous peoples and their laws and philosophies from their discourses. It is easier for Euro-Western people to tangle with a symbolic polar bear on a Greenpeace website or in a tweet than it is to acknowledge arctic Indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems and legal-political realities.[ii]

Inuit relationships with their natural surroundings need to be comprehended in conjunction with environmental conservation in order to fully understand and address issues like climate change. In fact, environmental historian Andrew Stuhl argues that these outsider imaginations of a barren and/or melting Arctic are changing due to a growing awareness of the connections between climate change, Indigenous rights, and environmental preservation.[iii]

Recognizing overlapping fields and issues regarding climate change can help to correct exaggerated understandings of the “disappearing” Arctic. While sea levels are rising, natural habitats and species are endangered, and Indigenous populations are smaller compared to previous generations, none have disappeared.[iv] King’s sculpture serves as a reminder of the modernity of the Arctic. His representation of polar bears crossing ice connects popular animal


[i] Lill-Ann Körber, Scott MacKenzie, and Anna Westerståhl Stenport, “Introduction: Arctic Modernities, Environmental Politics, and the Era of the Anthropocene” in Arctic Environmental Modernities: From the Age of Polar Exploration to the Era of the Anthropocene (2017), 1-2.

[ii] Zoe Todd, “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is Just Another Word for Colonialism,” Journal of Historical Sociology 29, no. 1 (March 2016), 6.

[iii] Andrew Stuhl, “The Disappearing Arctic? Scientific Narrative, Environmental Crisis, and the Ghosts of Colonial History” in Arctic Environmental Modernities: From the Age of Polar Exploration to the Era of the Anthropocene.

[iv] Ibid.

imagery and associated environmental issues to Inuit cultural resilience. A contemporary piece such as this serves as a reminder that Inuit, like the Arctic, are neither distant, nor extinct.

Themes of materiality and Arctic ecology connect King’s work to other sculptures in the University of Delaware collections. Much like Polar Bear and Cubs, Two Otters (1987) by Adamie Anautak (1946-2016) is made of a single piece of hard stone that influenced the form (fig. 2).[i] Rather than serpentine, Anautak used soapstone, a material that is also common in Inuit sculpture. Both artists worked with the natural shape and curves of the stone to sculpt their subjects. Small details like whiskers and toes are carved into Two Otters, in a manner similar to the eyes and mouths on King’s polar bears. Otters, like polar bears, have also served as a symbol for environmental conservation because the species became endangered during the fur trade.[ii]

King’s Polar Bear and Cubs thus exemplifies processes and themes that are shared among Inuit sculptors. Made for sale to outsiders, this representation of a mother polar bear and her cubs crossing Artic ice draws inspiration from the type and form of King’s chosen stone as well as his cultural and natural environment. The subject matter speaks to both the polar bear’s prominent role in Inuit art and culture and its iconic status within contemporary debates about climate change. By contextualizing sculptures like Polar Bear and Cubs and Two Otters within Inuit culture, viewers are, in turn, encouraged to revise their perceptions of Indigenous people and Arctic modernity.


[i] Spirit Wrestler Gallery, “Adamie Anauta (Anautak),” accessed March 7, 2018, Anautak also came from a family of artists; he learned to sculpt from his father, Lukasi Anauta. Both artists favored natural and supper natural scenes and professionally carved for profit.

[ii] Ian McTaggart-Cowan, “Sea Otter,” Historica Canada, last modified March 4, 2015,

Background Image

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in Wager Bay (Ukkusiksalik National Park, Nunavut, Canada)

By Ansgar Walk (Own work)

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license:

Figure 1.

Kingwatsiaq (King) Jaw (Inuk, 1962 – 2012). Mother Bear with Cubs, 1998. Serpentine. Museums Collections, Gift of Carol A. Heppenstall. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts.




Figure 2.

Adamie Anautak (Inuk, 1946 – 2016). Two Otters, 1987. Black soapstone. Museums Collections, Gift of Frederick & Lucy S Herman