KING ISLAND CARVERS - Inside the King Island Carving Studio in Nome, Thomas Barr and Matthew Tiulana are focused on their artwork. Pictured on the left, Barr is polishing mammoth ivory jewelry. On the right, Tiulana is repairing a walrus bone piece.

Regional ivory carvers see an uncertain future ahead

As concerned Alaska Natives raise their voices in opposition to domestic ivory ban laws passed in a growing number of states, the entire ivory carving community remains uncertain about the future of their artwork, their income and their subsistence way of life.
“It’s scary to think about it, but I might be the last generation that carves fresh walrus ivory,” said Robert McCoy-Apangalook, a 27-year-old ivory carver from Gambell.
McCoy-Apangalook told the Nome Nugget in a phone interview that it has been really hard for him to sell his carvings lately. “All the shops I sell to around Alaska have all slowed down quite a bit, because they are scared of the new laws” said McCoy-Apangalook. “California and New York […] those were two of our biggest populations that collect our artwork.”
McCoy-Apangalook is from Gambell, but relocated to the Wasilla area with his fiancé when his ivory carving business started to take off. He said that now after the ivory bans, it’s hard to make ends meet, as a lot of the shops he used to sell to haven’t even purchased once this summer.
McCoy-Apangalook said that because of the fact that it is getting harder and harder to collect walrus due to climate change and a shorter hunting season, he would have expected prices to get higher and higher with time, influenced by the rarity of walrus ivory. But with the current uncertainty in the national ivory market, the opposite becomes true. Because of the unwillingness to buy, he said that he is forced to sink his prices to an uncomfortably low number.
Here in Nome, inside the King Island carving studio located in the King Island Native Corporation building, the dust flies and machines whirr as local carvers create artwork from walrus bone, walrus ivory and mammoth ivory. When this Nome Nugget reporter visited the studio, there were two artists at work in their respective stations.
Thomas Barr, a local carver, was working on two pairs of mammoth ivory earrings and a square pendant made of mammoth ivory, inlaid with a walrus ivory star. Barr told the Nome Nugget that he has been carving for 20 years. He sells his pieces mostly locally, and so far hasn’t been affected by the domestic ivory bans.
Barr said he is busy with work and family, and is only able to come to the carving studio on his days off. Recently, he has been making smaller jewelry pieces that he can finish in a day, although he used to make larger carvings, such as seals, walruses and eagles. He said that the mammoth ivory, which is his current focus, is from tusks he found in small creeks in the area.
Another carver in the King Island carving studio was Matthew Tiulana, who has been carving since he was 16-years-old. He told the Nome Nugget that he learned to carve by watching others, and started out working with soapstone. Now, he works with both walrus bone and walrus ivory, but mainly focuses on making ivory masks.
Tiulana sells his work to the local gift shop. Tiulana says that he expects the ivory bans may do something to the local gift shops and ivory sales, but he hasn’t noticed impacts to his own pocket, yet. Tiulana says that around the holidays, he goes to Anchorage to sell his work, as the prices he can get from gift shops there are three times higher than local prices.
Percy Nayokpuk is an ivory carver and seller from Shishmaref. In a phone interview with the Nome Nugget, he said that he just came from an arts and crafts show at the Alaska Federation of Natives. “I’ve been doing that since AFN started,” said Nayokpuk, “so it’s been about 50 years of participating there in their arts and crafts show, and this year didn’t have any outside buyers. Not the ones that I was familiar with, and I think most of them were from California.”
Nayokpuk said that he thinks the domestic ivory bans are definitely making an impact already on the sales of ivory. He said that in the north side communities of the peninsula, like Shishmaref, they aren’t a part of NSEDC and they don’t have a fishery. “We don’t have a cash economy here,” said Nayokpuk. “It’s more of a, more ‘traditional’ economy, which at one time was very strong. In my father’s day there [were] no poor people in the village, because the economy worked,” he said.
Nayokpuk said that when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, the village had big changes forced on it and started to see more and more people who were unable to live an affordable life. That reality forced villagers to make changes to their lifestyle and try to adjust.
Nayokpuk said that a lot of people began working ivory, because that was the only way they could make a living, and the same remains true today.
“We’re all carvers here in Shishmaref for the most part,” said Nayokpuk. “The real economy we have here is a home-based kind of industry… producing product out of sea mammals. After a while when you keep doing this for generations, people tend to get very good, so we are proud of our product. We feel that the quality of our work is outstanding, and we’re proud to do it. But the industry’s under attack now, and I don’t know what the future holds, it’s very uncertain at this time,” Nayokpuk said.
Although many, like Robert McCoy-Apangalook, understand the need for ivory bans concerning threatened elephant species and illegal poaching, it seems difficult to find a way for other states to recognize that Native artists in Alaska are gathering ivory from subsistence harvesting activities, using each part of the animal for everything from a food source, to an income source, to traditional arts and crafts.
“Those arts and crafts are mainly marine products including ivory and whalebone – it’s a very big issue for our communities,” Nayokpuk explained.
“It’s going to be harder if this trend continues,” said Nayokpuk. “It’s going to have a big impact on families and whole villages, I can say that about Shishmaref, and probably the same case in St. Lawrence Island where they have about the same situation as we do, they are very dependent on the arts and crafts.”

The Nome Nugget

PO Box 610
Nome, Alaska 99762

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

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