Russell Beaverson displays tupilaks 2011.10.19

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

tupilak2By DAVID GREEN

Fayette resident Russell Beaverson spent several years in Alaska, starting in 1954, and he didn’t return home without a few souvenirs.

His memorabilia includes a polar bear skin, an ink drawing on reindeer skin, soapstone carvings and walrus tusks.

The major portion of his souvenirs is a collection of tupilak art from Greenland. The word refers to an ancestor’s soul or spirit, and in former times, shamans created tupilaks out of various objects to avenge an enemy.

In more recent times, the Inuit people carved representations of the monsters out of tusks, wood and antler. All of the tupilaks in Russell’s collection were carved from whale teeth.

Russell served in the military in Alaska from 1954 to 1957, but he remained there after discharge and attended college at the University of Alaska.

He spent two summers working on a river boat hauling freight, then he took a job at Clear Air Force Base operating the power house.

He had a similar job at the university, and it was there that he was recruited to work on one of the DEW Line radar installations—the Distant Early Warning system that searched for low-flying Russian aircraft.

Russell served as the inside mechanic, responsible for keeping everything in operation on the inside of the facility with the exception of the electronics.

The desolate stations were scattered every 250 miles or so along the Arctic Ocean and on into Greenland.

tupilak5Every few weeks, one of two chaplains serving the DEW Line would arrive, either the Protestant or the Catholic.

One of the pastors bought tupilaks in Greenland and carried them from base to base in a suitcase, offering them for sale. Russell ended up buying nearly two dozen.

“They all tell a story,” Russell explained, and he recalls many of the tales that the pastor passed on when he sold the works of art.

Russell’s pieces range in size from three to five and a half inches, pointing out the large size of a whale’s tooth.

He’s impressed with the intricate details shown in the pieces, noting that the teeth are hollow in the middle which would require careful planning and cutting away.

The figurines are highly prized by collectors and Russell feels fortunate to have an interesting array of works in his possession.

Weekly newspaper serving SE Michigan and NW Ohio - State Line Observer ©2006-2014