Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The iqyax^ and the Sea Otter

A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a bronze model of an Unangan kayak.  This year, my wife gave me a bronze sea otter. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the sea otter was made to roughly the same scale as the kayak and so I put the sea otter on the deck of the kayak where it looks nice and appropriate and also cute.
The notion of a sea otter on the deck of an Unangan kayak is mostly a fantasy.  Sea otters were hunted by Unangan men in the service of the Russian fur traders aka promyshlenniki and later under American rule until the hunt was outlawed in 1911. Apparently, it dawned on somebody in the government that sea otters were near extinction.
So, perhaps coincidentally, the sculptural assemblage of kayak and sea otter is a  belated celebration of the one hundred year anniversary of the cessation of the sea otter hunt.

To modern urban sensibilities, the notion of hunting sea otters is abhorrent since they are so indisputably cute even as full grown adults.
But sea otters were hunted for practical reasons, that is, for money that the Chinese were willing to pay for their fur.

The Chinese needed the fur for their aristocracy which needed the luxuriant fur to trim their aristocratic robes as shown above.

The fur, when not attached to an imperial Chinese robe looks like the above. Legal note:  Only Alaskan Natives may possess sea mammal furs in the raw.  Non-natives may possess art or crafts objects that incorporate sea mammal parts if created by natives.
The Spanish in America, specifically in Baja and Alta California, received mercury in payment from the Chinese for sea otter furs.  The mercury was then used to extract gold from ore and the gold was shipped back to Spain to finance wars against other European nations.  And so it goes.
Sea otters are safe for the time being.  Oil has been found to be much more vital to economic well-being than mercury or gold.

1 comment:

Anjuli Grantham said...

I am very interested in knowing where the Chinese garment with the sea otter embellishments is housed. I am looking for examples of sea otter fur used in Chinese garments during the Russian American era.