Horns of the dilemma Tack­ling the ivory is­sue


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Jen­nifer Levin

IN2013, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is­sued Ex­ec­u­tive Or­der 13648 to com­bat wildlife traf­fick­ing. Though the word “ivory” is not men­tioned in its text, the or­der was meant to ad­dress ele­phant poach­ing in Africa, an ac­tiv­ity that in­spires out­rage among those op­posed to tro­phy hunt­ing and an­i­mal cru­elty. More than 30,000 ele­phants are il­le­gally killed in Africa each year to feed the in­ter­na­tional ivory trade. Ex­cep­tions are made at the fed­eral level for the sale of an­tique ivory that is more than 100 years old, but some states, in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia and Hawaii, have passed all-out bans on the ma­te­rial. While an ivory ban to pro­tect wildlife in Africa might sound like a clear-cut is­sue — and for many peo­ple, it is — re­stric­tions on ivory sales are com­pli­cated, with the po­ten­tial for unan­tic­i­pated col­lat­eral dam­age to the cul­tural prac­tices, fi­nan­cial liveli­hoods, and le­gal rights of indige­nous peo­ples in the United States.

“I was in­tro­duced to this sit­u­a­tion by one of my fel­low ar­ti­san friends who used to work with me in New Mex­ico,” said Denise Wal­lace (Sug­piaq), an Alaska na­tive now liv­ing in Hawaii who has been a jew­eler for 40 years. She uses fos­silized mam­moth and mastodon ivory in her work, as well as wal­rus tusk. Be­cause ivory-ban leg­is­la­tion doesn’t al­ways dis­tin­guish be­tween types of ivory, a friend told her, some deal­ers in Cal­i­for­nia said this could af­fect fos­sil ma­te­rial. “All ivory does not equal dead ele­phants. For many of us who work with this ma­te­rial, we thought this could be a prob­lem. It didn’t seem like there would be any rea­son that they would go af­ter ma­te­rial that’s hun­dreds of thou­sands of years old. But then it seemed like, all of a sud­den, [new laws] were hit­ting a lot of dif­fer­ent states, bam-bam-bam. It was re­ally shock­ing.”

Wal­lace presents a free pub­lic lec­ture on the sub­ject, “I Am the Wal­rus,” at the Wheel­wright Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian on Sun­day, Dec. 9. The lec­ture is fol­lowed by a trunk show of wal­rus-in­spired pieces that in­cludes art made by other Alaskan jew­el­ers and carvers. Some of the wal­rus ivory is fos­silized ma­te­rial, dug out of the ground, but some is from an­i­mals that were hunted for food. It is le­gal un­der fed­eral law for Alaska na­tives to hunt wal­rus and to use their ivory. “This is the way they make their liv­ing,” Wal­lace said. “By ban­ning the sales of wal­rus

“[Fos­silized ivory is] re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary ma­te­rial to work with, not only be­cause of where it orig­i­nally came from, but be­cause it sat in the ground for hun­dreds and thou­sands of years.” — artist Denise Wal­lace

ivory, you’re pe­nal­iz­ing thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple in the state of Alaska. It’s not just the carvers — it’s their fam­i­lies, their neigh­bors. If these laws reach the point where, let’s say, ev­ery­where be­comes like the state of Cal­i­for­nia, where it is il­le­gal to sell it, does it de­value their work? What hap­pens to this econ­omy?”

Wal­lace is up­front about not be­ing an ex­pert in the sub­ject. At her lec­ture, she hopes to be­gin a di­a­logue with peo­ple in­ter­ested in the is­sue. She will present what she knows and wel­come ques­tions, ob­ser­va­tions, and opin­ions. Cer­tainly, she said, she is against big-game tro­phy hunt­ing and killing ele­phants for their tusks. But she is leery of what she sees as a some­what fa­nat­i­cal ap­proach by peo­ple who have an emo­tional at­tach­ment to ele­phants but are un­aware that indige­nous Alaskan artists rou­tinely use fos­silized ivory.

“It’s re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary ma­te­rial to work with, not only be­cause of where it orig­i­nally came from, but be­cause it sat in the ground for hun­dreds and thou­sands of years and ab­sorbed dif­fer­ent min­er­als — so it re­ally has a qual­ity about it un­like any­thing I’ve ever worked with. I’m ex­tremely at­tracted to it; I feel a real strong con­nec­tion with the ma­te­rial that is re­ally hard to ex­plain to peo­ple who don’t want you to use ivory.

“We’ve ac­tu­ally had peo­ple say, just use plas­tic,” she said. “They are mak­ing resins that can [look like ivory] but it’s plas­tic. I come from a cul­ture that’s very adapt­able; we’ve been very adapt­able. But why should an Alaska Na­tive be put in the po­si­tion of hav­ing to use plas­tic or some other ma­te­rial that is not rel­e­vant to their en­vi­ron­ment and their way of life?”

Wal­lace makes an­i­mal and hu­man fig­ures out of ster­ling sil­ver, gold, semi­precious stones like lapis lazuli, pet­ri­fied di­nosaur bone, and fos­sil ivory. Her pieces, which in­clude pen­dants and belt buck­les, are solid yet del­i­cate. The ex­pres­sions, whether on the face of a girl or a wal­rus, tend to­ward the joy­ous. Some of her most pop­u­lar pieces deal with the idea of trans­for­ma­tion, which she said re­flects the in­flu­ence of art his­tor­i­cally made in Alaska. “Trans­for­ma­tion has been part of our cul­tural his­tory for a very long time, but I find that it’s also rel­e­vant with other cul­tures. Some of my pieces open, or parts can be re­moved. That has hap­pened over a pe­riod of time, but it was ini­tially in­spired by some of the older masks that could open up — masks from the North­west coast and into Alaska.”

Her fam­ily comes from south-cen­tral Alaska, and she grew up in Seat­tle, split­ting her time be­tween both places. Af­ter high school, she and her sib­lings moved back to Alaska, where many of them re­mained and raised their chil­dren. Wal­lace moved away to at­tend the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts and then lived in Santa Fe for 20 years be­fore mov­ing to the Big Is­land of Hawaii in 1999. Wal­lace’s grown chil­dren make jew­elry now, as does her grand­son. She said she’s grate­ful that her fam­ily has de­vel­oped this tra­di­tion, which she saw hap­pen­ing over many gen­er­a­tions among Pue­blo artists when she lived in New Mex­ico.

“Peo­ple find it re­ally unique and dif­fer­ent, but in Na­tive cul­tures that is how we’ve lived. Maybe, in the way the world is now, peo­ple want their kids to go off and get an ed­u­ca­tion and get a job — and then they miss them hor­ri­bly when they move some­where else. I’m happy that it is the way it is. I have my fam­ily around me.”

Left to right, Denise and David Wal­lace: Seal Ring, 2017; Dawn and David Wal­lace: Por­trait of a Wal­rus, 2017; Denise and David Wal­lace: Spirit of Drift­wood Ring, all pieces ster­ling sil­ver, 14k gold, fos­sil wal­rus ivory; top left, fos­sil wal­rus ivory, Alaska Fur Ex­change, An­chor­age, 2018

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