Ivory ban affects Native arts (Alaska)


Kevin Baird, Newsminer

Date Published

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FAIRBANKS — New laws banning the sale of ivory are having a “chilling effect” on the Alaska Native arts economy, Sen. Dan Sullivan said.

Sullivan convened the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife for a field hearing Thursday afternoon during the Alaska Native Federation Convention at the Carlson Center.

California, New York and New Jersey now have laws banning the trade and sale of all types of ivory including walrus tusks.

For centuries, some Native Alaskans have relied upon the walrus for food, their skins for watercraft and have carved the tusks into intricate works of art. Today, these works of art play a major role in the subsistence economies of some Alaska villages.

John Waghiyi of St. Lawrence Island, which lies in the middle of the Bering Sea, has been carving walrus tusks for more than 50 years. In the arts pavilion at AFN, his hand-crafted ivory statuary is attractive. The polar bears, seals, narwhals and natives in traditional dress, which have been chiseled from ivory is how Waghiyi brings money back to his village.

“I think most people are ridiculously misinformed,” Waghiyi says of the people who have worked to bring about these blanketed bans on ivory. “We have a connection to this resource that predates history. We are not a bunch of European poachers exhausting the resource. We’re the best conservationists in the world. We have a spiritual connection to the walrus.”

“We eat the meat. It’s part of our subsistence lifestyle,” Waghiyi added.  

During the hearing, Sullivan said the Federal law, that went into effect in July, bans the sale and trade of only elephant ivory, but this has confused many tourists leading them to avoid purchasing walrus-ivory native art in Alaska.

Rosita Worl, who is president of Sealaska Heritage Inc., was the first to testify at the hearing. She said she had been proactive in trying to prevent the state ivory bans.

“These ivory bans are a deterrent and may confuse those who would buy. Suppression of the ivory market could be disastrous,” Worl said. “Alaska Natives firmly believe and support efforts to preserve the African elephant. However, we do not believe efforts should affect the Alaska Native ivory artists.”

“There is little opportunity for economic development in our villages,” she added. “Today, arts and crafts play and even greater role in village economies.”

Worl said an ivory artist can earn between $35,00 and $50,000 in a year, and the money often is shared with the family and the village.

Tara Sweeney, an executive vice president at the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, said native artwork is being confiscated at the U.S.-Canadian border by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, and at airports too.

“I believe it is your responsibility to draw the line between elephant ivory and walrus ivory,” Sweeney said to Sullivan. “It should not be synonymous.”

Susie Silook, a world renowned ivory and bone artist who is also from St. Lawrence Island testified in the hearing. She said she has not been producing so much art lately because she has been working to prevent more sweeping ivory bans.

“I’m well aware of who this is impacting,” Silook said. “This is me. It’s us.”

Silook also works with mastodon and mammoth bones, which can be found on her island, and was baffled that mammoth ivory is illegal in some states.

“The mammoth is extinct. This is ridiculous,” Silook said.

Silook suggested that an Indigenous People’s Policy Committee be involved with federal lawmaking to give Natives a voice.  

World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Managing Director Margaret Williams said the WWF fully supports the recent ban on elephant ivory, but the wildlife advocacy group respected people who live a sustainable life.

“WWF encourages (lawmakers) to engage with Alaska Native populations when drafting these laws,” Williams said. She said working with Native groups such as the Eskimo Walrus Commission is also encouraged.

Sullivan asked Worl if she thought states had implemented the broad ivory bans and unintentionally harmed native ivory arts, or whether the bans had been passed knowing full well about the impact on Alaska Natives.

Worl, who had fought against these laws, said she had felt ignored.

“In the case of California, I think they were very much aware,” Worl said.

“I think they’re ignoring us completely,” Silook added.

Sullivan wondered whether there were other wildlife advocacy groups pushing lawmakers into passing these absolute ivory bans. He asked Williams if she knew which, if any wildlife-advocacy groups have been a driving force behind the full ivory ban in California.

“It’s not us,” Williams said. “I can’t speak on behalf of other groups though.”

Sweeney proposed that the WWF use its influential connections to the other advocacy groups to make clarifications regarding the walrus ivory trade.

“We would be glad to clarify this within our network,” Williams said.

Silook also suggested a national ivory action plan — an educational campaign at seaports and airports — to inform people about the differences in elephant and walrus ivory.

Sullivan said the record will remain open and any person wishing to testify on the matter can do so by emailing pierce_wiegard@sullivan.senate.gov