FIELD HEARING—  Dr. Rosita “Kaahani” Worl, of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Tara Sweeney, executive vice president Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Susie Silook, ivory carver from St. Lawrence Island and Margaret Williams, managing director Arctic Program for World Wildlife Fund, testified at a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fishers, Water and Wildlife during the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention on Oct. 21. 

Confusion over African ivory ban impacts local carvers

Federal laws banning the sale, use or possession of ivory from African elephants are now having a “chilling effect” in the U.S. on Alaska Natives who legally utilize walrus, mammoth and mastodon ivory products in their art. This impact prompted Senator Dan Sullivan to convene a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fishers, Water and Wildlife during the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention on Oct. 21. 

Immediately following St. Lawrence Island artist Susie Silook’s impassioned speech on the main stage at AFN she stepped into a side meeting room at the Carlson Center to testify along with Dr. Rosita Worl, president of the Sealalaska Heritage Institute, Tara Sweeney, executive vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Margaret Williams, managing director of the Arctic Program at the World Wildlife Fund. Senator Lisa Murkowski joined her U.S. Senate colleague in addressing the hearing audience and listening in briefly before exiting for her scheduled address to the main convention.

Sullivan explained to hearing attendees that a federal rule that took effect in July bans the sale and trade of only elephant ivory, but that it is confusing tourists who don’t understand that the ban is not on all ivory, leading them to avoid purchasing art from Alaska Natives made from legally harvested walrus and fossilized mammoth and mastodon.

The rule is enforced under provisions of the Endangered Species Act to help federal agents intercept black market shipments and catch traffickers who contributed to the killing of an estimated 100,000 elephants, one every 15 minutes, for their ivory in a recent three year period, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency within Department of Interior responsible for overseeing the associated regulations.

Further fueling the confusion and avoidance of all ivory purchases by some tourists and buyers for galleries and gift shops in the Lower 48, California, New York and New Jersey have enacted their own state laws banning the trade and sale of all types of ivory including walrus and mammoth tusks. Additional states are considering similar laws.

Sullivan kicked off the official congressional hearing explaining the hosting of the field hearing at AFN. “Rather than having you come to Washington, DC we’re hosting this here where you are and to also bring awareness to this issue that is harming Alaska Native artisans,” he said.

No declines of walrus species has ever been attributed to the traditional and customary use and harvest of walrus and the bans have economic consequences for communities who use the resource and artists whose livelihood depends on the sale of their ivory carvings and other art.

Sealaska’s Worl testified first and said she has been proactive her attempts to prevent 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.

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

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

“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,” Worl said.

Individual state ivory ban laws could cause residents to face prosecution for buying, owning, or bringing home legally acquired ivory from Alaska. Worl described tourists departing cruise ships in Alaska and avoiding all ivory products.

Worl ended her formal testimony saying, “This isn’t just about an economic resource, sir, it’s about our art, our ancient cultures, the things that bind us together as a people.”

Next up, Sweeney told of other consequences from the bans. She said that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel are confiscating Native artwork at the U.S.-Canadian border and other points of entry and exit at airports, too.

Silook, a world renowned ivory and bone artist testified that she has produced little 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, works also with mastodon and mammoth bones that she finds on her island, and said she is baffled that mammoth ivory is illegal in some states.

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

Williams testified that her wildlife advocacy organization supports the recent ban on elephant ivory, but they also respect the Alaska Native people who live sustainably.

“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 questions of the testifying panel—asking if they know who is behind the push to ban all ivory. He wondered if it is more just confusion from state residents and officials lacking knowledge on the visual and harvesting differences between African elephant ivory and that found in Alaska or could there be ulterior motives at play.

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

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.”

Sullivan asked Worl directly if she thought states are implementing broad ivory bans unintentionally harming Alaska ivory arts, or whether the bans were passed or being considered with full knowledge of the differences in African ivory and Alaskan.

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

Sullivan finished up the meeting by asking the panel for suggestions on what he and the Department of Interior could do to help.

Sillook says she feels ignored by agencies like the USFWS, which promulgates the laws on African ivory. “I think they’re ignoring us completely,” Silook stated.

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 asked for the creation of a national ivory action plan that would include an educational campaign to inform people about the differences in elephant and walrus ivory. 

“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.”

Melanie Bahnke, president of Kawerak Inc. submitted her written testimony and provided copies at the hearing. “We wholeheartedly support the efforts to stop the poaching of elephants,” Bahnke wrote.

“There are misconceptions and a general lack of knowledge,” she added. “For long as our history, we who live in the Arctic and subarctic, live near the sea have harvested walrus.”

She explained that “walrus provides meat, hides, blubber and ivory, all of which are put to use in traditional ways,” and that the entire walrus is used including the ivory tusks.

“Foremost,” Bahnke wrote, “walrus is harvested as food security.” She referred to Alaska Native’s subsistence lifestyle as well as the Alaska’s remoteness and difficulty in obtaining food assistance from outside sources should the need arise.

“If artists are not able to sell their handicrafts due to ivory ban laws,” Bahnke stated, “this may potentially increase the need for public assistance and tribal welfare assistance.”

Bahnke wrote that, “although this issue may seem inconsequential, it is important the U.S. government further promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples to pursue their economic, social and cultural traditions and customs.”

She recommended that the USFWS and other appropriate federal agencies work collaboratively with the Eskimo Walrus Commission to address issues and concerns.

“The USFWS is keenly interested in ensuring the use of walrus ivory in Native handicraft and art continues as presently allowed, as noted by the Secretary of the Interior during her address to AFN,” responded Greg Siekaniec, Alaska regional director for the USFWS, by e-mail.

Sally Jewell, secretary for the Department of Interior, made mention of her appreciation for walrus ivory art, pointing to the earrings she wore on stage and noted that “I do appreciate that this is an important part of your economy."

An “I Love Ivory” post card circulated at AFN asking people to wear their ivory jewelry with pride, support local artists by continuing to buy ivory products, contact their congressional delegation to tell them that “Walrus, mammoth and mastodon ivory must be excluded from the domestic ivory ban.”

Kawerak Inc. is encouraging people take pictures or “selfies” and post “I love ivory” statements on social media. Sullivan said the record will remain open for 30 days and any person wishing to testify on the matter can do so by emailing in his office.

The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

Phone: (907) 443-5235
Fax: (907) 443-5112

External Links

Sign Up For Breaking News

Stay informed on our latest news!

Manage my subscriptions

Subscribe to Breaking News feed