Will an Ivory Ban Criminalize Indigenous Artists’ Work in Alaska?


Ryan Schuessler, The Guardian

Date Published

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Indigenous artists in Alaska are beginning to organize amid concerns that a growing number of statewide bans on the sale of ivory will negatively affect their livelihood.

New York, New Jersey and California are among the states that have passed some form of ivory ban in recent years, hoping to curb poaching and trafficking of elephants and other species overseas. More than a dozen other states have legislative efforts under way to pass similar measures. Laws also ban the sale of walrus, mammoth and mastodon ivory – materials legally used by indigenous artists in Alaska, and an economic lifeline to native communities in that state.

New Jersey, New York, California, Massachusetts and Washington all have laws on the books that, to some extent, ban the sale of ivory. But subsistence digging for fossilized ivory and hunting of walrus in Alaska is legal for Alaska Natives.

“It’s not just a hobby for us – this is our livelihood,” said Denise Wallace, an indigenous Alutiiq ivory carver now living in Hawaii, which is poised to pass its own broad ban of ivory. “I live out of the state, but I know there are a lot of people up [in Alaska] who are living in villages, and this is their total income as well.”

The laws as they are written, Dalee Sambo, a University of Alaska-Anchorage political science professor, said, fail to specifically protect the rights of indigenous Alaskans – guaranteed under federal law – to sell ivory carvings and art. Some of the states that have passed legislation include exemptions, but Sambo said the general language could leave the door open for prosecution at the state level.

Characterizing the various state laws as “ill informed” of the exemptions granted to Alaska Natives, Sambo, who represents the Arctic region on the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, also said the regulatory ambiguity between states is an unjust burden on Alaska’s indigenous artists.

“They have the responsibility to take actions that are consistent with the law, and the law has exemptions for Alaska Native people,” Sambo said of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces ivory regulations. “Most of [the bans], if not all of them, are wholly unaware of the federal law entitled the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which does include an exemption for Alaska Native people. Not only to hunt walrus but also their use of the ivory.”

“I can understand the need to protect the elephants,” said Susie Silook, a Yup’ik artist from Alaska’s St Lawrence Island, now living in Washington state. “I really can, and I care about the elephants. But it’s kind of discouraging to see indigenous issues thrown under the bus.”

Trisha Kehaulani Watson, a native Hawaiian who is active in that state’s ongoing effort to ban the sale of ivory, disagrees.

“This law doesn’t trump federal law [which allows Alaska Natives to sell ivory],” Watson said. “As an indigenous person, I would never want to undo the rights of another indigenous person.”

“Most everyone in the villages are related to an artist,” Silook said of her home town of Gambell, Alaska, and those artists often provide important income for families and communities. When she still lived in Alaska, Silook said she would see dealers spend tens of thousands of dollars in just a few days on ivory products, bringing vitality to an otherwise struggling economy.

As climate change causes sea ice to recede, that lifeline is becoming all the more important. Hunters have to travel farther to find walrus and whale, “and gasoline is expensive there”, Silook said. Income from carvings, especially from fossilized ivory, will become even more essential for survival.

The individual state bans on ivory threaten that lifeline, the Alaskan artists say, at the least by discouraging potential buyers with complicated regulations.

“We have a long history of hunting for our livelihood and subsistence,” said Paul Apangalook, a hunter and ivory carver on Alaska’s St Lawrence Island. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to do so,” and ivory bans add another challenge, he said. 

When asked how she would respond to the concerns of Alaskan artists who fear more ivory regulations will dissuade potential customers, Watson, advocating for an ivory ban in Hawaii, said: “For us, consumerism isn’t everything. It’s important, but it isn’t everything. We believe that there are ways you can change your income. You can change how you make money, but you can’t necessarily change other things. We’ve lost practices, we’ve lost traditions, we’ve lost customs, because we did not have enough forethought to protect our species.”

She added: “Having enough food to eat and protecting your traditional practices are more important than customers.”

Both Wallace and Silook said Alaskan carvers across the country were caught off guard by the implementation of these bans, and that they are beginning to organize a coordinated effort to respond.

“I’ve made my living off this my whole life,” Wallace said. “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t use this material any more.”

“We need a voice,” Apangalook said, who first started carving in the 1960s, but no longer can due to his poor eyesight.

“[Ivory carvings] help to keep our identity out there,” Silook said. “A lot of times, people aren’t very aware of indigenous people, or that we’re even still here.”