Horns of the dilemma Tackling the ivory issue
TACKLING THE IVORY ISSUE
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