THE TRUTH ABOUT ALASKAN IVORY

Have you ever thought about buying a piece of Alaskan ivory? Has something stopped you?

Fossil ivory bear

As you are probably aware, because of the tragic slaughter of thousands of elephants for their tusks, national and international trade in the ivory of threatened species such as African or Asian elephants is now illegal, as well it should be. But what about Alaskan ivory? Because it is often fossilized and does not come from an endangered species, ivory used in Alaska is quite legal, and very much a part of Alaskan Native art and culture.
When you hold a piece of fossilized ivory in your hand, let your imagination take you back through the ages to the time when that ivory existed as part of an ancient animal. Can you imagine its prehistoric world? Close your eyes and let the piece float in your mind. What do you feel and see? It is awe-inspiring to try to comprehend the age of the piece you are holding.

Scrimshawed tooth

Ivory has had a wide variety of uses since ancient times. Prior to the introduction of plastics, ivory was made into cutlery, billiard balls, piano keys, Scottish bagpipes, buttons, false teeth, fans and dominoes, as well as jewelry and simple to elaborate carvings. The ancient Irish decorated their sword hilts with ivory from whale teeth. The Chinese valued elephant ivory for both art and utilitarian objects. Early whalers scratched designs on sperm whale teeth, then rubbed India ink into the scratches, a process known as scrimshaw. In modern times, artists have used scrimshaw to create some beautiful pieces, such as tusks displaying a complete scene from Alaskan life, or a pendant with an elaborate flower or animal scratched into its surface.

Fossil walrus ivory

Today’s Alaskan ivory comes from three sources: walrus tusks, fossilized mammoth and mastodon. Native hunters are allowed to take a number of walrus each season. The carvers often buy their ivory from hunters in their village. Unfortunately, indigenous walrus hunts have also led to over-harvesting. Hunters claim they kill walrus as part of their subsistence needs. However, far more animals are killed than people could possibly eat. The reason: the ivory tusks. This over-harvesting is a problem that needs to be addressed by more stringent regulation.
The white dentine from the walrus tusk is of two types: primary or secondary. Primary dentine looks much like classic elephant ivory. The inner core of the tusk, or the secondary dentine, has a more marbled appearance; it reminds me of tapioca.
The mammoth and mastodon were both prehistoric elephants. If you examine closely a piece of ivory from either of these animals, you may see lines in a cross-hatch pattern that appear similar to lines you might see in a modern elephant tusk. These lines, called Schreger lines, are formed by a series of spirals crossing one another, creating a pattern resembling a star. There is a difference, however, between the lines on modern elephant tusks and those on prehistoric ivory. On mammoth or mastodon, the points of the star form obtuse angles. The angles of the points on modern elephant ivory are acute. By looking at a cross-section of the ivory through a microscope, one can identify the type of ivory.
White ivory from the year’s walrus harvest, known as “new” ivory, can only be legally carved by an Alaskan Native, and to insure its legality, it must be signed by the artist. However, the fossilized ivory currently in use is prehistoric — mammoth and mastodon, at least 4,500 years old, or fossilized or mineralized walrus tusk, around 500 to 3,000 years old. This ancient ivory is excavated along the Bering Sea coast by Inuit families, or is found by gold miners in Alaska and Canada. It is sometimes found when excavating through permafrost for a new building. Because this ivory is prehistoric, no species has been endangered by its use.

2 thoughts on “THE TRUTH ABOUT ALASKAN IVORY

  1. Hi. I have lived in Anchorage for over 35 years. @AK Guide posted this picture of a bear holding a cub in it’s mouth on the explore.org Katmai Brooks Falls chat. I have been buying and collecting ivory for over 30 years and would appreciate any information you can provide about this piece. Size, approximate age, carvers name and if this piece is for sale.

    Thank You,
    Bob Henry

    • Hello, Bob! Thanks for your question. The piece in question (bear carrying cub) is from my personal collection, and is not for sale. I bought it in Nome when I went there to lead an adult education seminar. The carver was from Nome; she was one of the adult ed teachers who attended. Her son, then a teenager, was also carving, and I bought a small seal that he had done. I don’t remember their names. I do remember that the polar bear with cub cost me $100.00. I don’t know if this information is helpful, but it’s all I can give you.

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