FAIRBANKS, Alaska — A U.S. senator from Alaska called a field Senate committee hearing regarding the federal ban on ivory from African elephants, which Alaska Natives say is confusing tourists and having a “chilling effect” on their legal use of walrus, mammoth and mastodon ivory products in art.
Sen. Dan Sullivan convened the field hearing of the 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 convention’s main stage, she stepped into a side meeting room at the Carlson Center to testify before the committee. Silook was joined by Sealalaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl; Arctic Slope Regional executive vice president Tara Sweeney; and Margaret Williams, managing director of the Arctic Program at the World Wildlife Fund.
Alaska’s senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski joined Sullivan in addressing the audience and listened briefly before leaving for her scheduled address to the main convention.
Sullivan said that a federal rule that took effect in July bans the sale and trade of only elephant ivory. But the ban confuses tourists who think it applies to all ivory and they have avoided purchasing Alaska Native art made from legally harvested walrus and fossilized mammoth and mastodon.
No declines in walrus populations ever have been attributed to the traditional use and harvest of walrus tusks, and the bans have economic consequences for communities who use the resource and artists whose livelihood depends on their ivory carvings and other art.
Instead, the rule is meant 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 US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Further fueling the confusion, 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 hearing by explaining why it was being held at the conference.
“Rather than having you come to Washington, we’re hosting this here where you are and to also bring awareness to this issue that is harming Alaska Native artisans.”
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. Today, arts and crafts play and even greater role in village economies.”
She said an ivory artist can earn between $35,000 and $50,000 a year, money that 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,” she said.
Individual state bans could make residents fearful of prosecution for bringing home legally acquired ivory from Alaska. Worl said she’s seen tourists leave cruise ships in Alaska and avoid all ivory products.
“This isn’t just about an economic resource; it’s about our art, our ancient cultures, the things that bind us together as a people,” Worl said.
In her testimony, Sweeney spoke of Fish and Wildlife Service personnel confiscating native artwork at the U.S.-Canadian border and other points of entry.
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 also works with mastodon and mammoth bones 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 organization supports the ban on elephant ivory but also respects the Alaska Native people who live sustainably.
“WWF encourages (lawmakers) to engage with Alaska Native populations when drafting these laws,” Williams said, adding that working with Native groups like the Eskimo Walrus Commission is also encouraged.
In written testimony, Kawerak Inc. president Melanie Bahnke said her group “wholeheartedly” supports the efforts to stop elephant poaching, and spoke to the lack of knowledge about ivory legally harvested from walruses.
“For long as our history, we who live in the Arctic and subarctic live near the sea and have harvested walrus,” Bahnke said. “Foremost, walrus is harvested as food security. If artists are not able to sell their handicrafts due to ivory ban laws, this may potentially increase the need for public assistance and tribal welfare assistance.”
She added, “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.”
Fish and Wildlife and other appropriate federal agencies should work collaboratively with the Eskimo Walrus Commission to address issues and concerns, she said.
Sullivan asked the panel if confusion of state residents and officials is because they lack knowledge of the differences between African elephant ivory and ivory found in Alaska or if ulterior motives are at play. He also questioned whether wildlife advocacy groups pushed lawmakers into passing these absolute ivory bans, and asked Williams if she knew which groups had been the 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 if she thought states are implementing broad ivory bans without intending to harm Alaska Native artists or whether the bans pass with full knowledge of the differences between African and Alaskan ivory.
“In the case of California, I think they were very much aware,” Worl said.
Sullivan ended by asking the panel for suggestions on what he and the Interior Department could do to help.
Sillook said she feels ignored by agencies like Fish and Wildlife, who promulgate the laws on African ivory.
Sweeney proposed that the World Wildlife Fund use its influential connections with other advocacy groups to clarify the walrus ivory trade. Williams agreed.
“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 told Sullivan. “It should not be synonymous.”
Sullivan said the record will remain open for 30 days.
Fish and Wildlife’s Alaska regional director Greg Siekaniec said in an email that the service “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.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell noted her appreciation for walrus ivory art, pointing to the earrings she wore on stage.
“I do appreciate that this is an important part of your economy,” she told the crowd.
Sullivan told Courthouse News that he was surprised by some of the testimony, and that some of it was news to him.
“Yes, I was surprised. I really thought going into this that it was mainly a misunderstanding among state representatives bringing about the state laws,” the senator said. “Now I hear there are instances where it’s intentional and done with full knowledge.”
Sullivan said he planned to take the information garnered and start knocking on the doors of his counterparts from these states. He will also be setting up meetings between Secretary Jewell and Fish and Wildlife.
Top photo: “Seeking Her Forgiveness,” by Susie Silook. Materials: walrus ivory, bowhead whalebone. Photo by Jimi Froelich.
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