Ivory Carving



he captain contemplated the walrus tusk.  If he listened, it would show him what to carve.  It had its own soul, and the captain brought out its beauty through careful craftsmanship.  Until he started, he wouldn’t know what color or combination of colors it held.  Some pieces had a milky iridescence while others looked creamy and smooth.

As a boy he’d watched his father carve both intricate and simple pieces.  He’d marveled as his father created scenes of Eskimo life, such as villagers holding a hide blanket ready to toss a young man into the air to spot whales or a hunter waiting outside a seal’s breathing hole.  His father had taken pride in the small details, from the fur on each seal to the wrinkles of a walrus’ skin.  While not quite as skilled as his father, the captain enjoyed the quiet meditation of carving.  His own sons and nephews, however, weren’t interested.  They had little patience for it.  The few times they’d tried their pieces had gone up in dust as they whittled them down to almost nothing.  They preferred the goods they could get at the local store in exchange for the raw ivory. Walrus ivory had always been highly valued.  Traditionally, Native Alaskans used it to make boat keels, tools such as harpoons, jewelry and statuettes.  It took on commercial value when Native Alaskans entered the cash economy, and became even more valuable in the early 1990s, when consumers turned to it as an alternative for elephant ivory.

People had long sought after elephant ivory for everything from piano keys to jewelry.  Yet legal and illegal ivory trade nearly decimated the African elephant population.  In just ten years, hunting for ivory nearly halved the African elephant population (and perhaps as many as 80 percent of East African elephants), with numbers plummeting from 1,300,000 animals in 1979 to 750,000 in 1989, and shrinking further to between 300,000 and 600,000 in 1995.  In response, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned commercial trade in elephant ivory in 1989.  While illegal poaching continued, customers also turned to substitutes, like bone, plastic and animal teeth, as replacements.

Finding Walrus Ivory in AlaskaAs prices for carved walrus ivory rose, Alaskan Natives increasingly sold their handicrafts.  Traders who came to the remote villages to buy them established close relationships with their master carvers and not only sold their work in the big cities, at nice profits, but launched the carvers as artists in their own rights.

The captain held the tusk in his hands.  Its denseness made it heavier than it looked, about eight pounds.  He mentally calculated how to divide the ivory, so as to waste as little as possible, and then made marks with a pencil.  It looked good.  He wrapped the tusk in a terry cloth towel and braced it in a small vice. Flipping on a bright spotlight, he plugged in his band saw and cut the tusk into two roughly equal parts.  Ivory dust scattered across his work boots while the closet-sized room amplified the high pitch of the saw.  He cut one of the sections again and set two of the chunks on the shelf above him.  He then turned to the remaining piece.

He slowly rotated the ivory in his hands and pictured the walrus he would carve.  He imagined where the head, tusks, body and flippers would go and calculated where to make the initial cuts.  In carving, the artist worked backwards, creating a sculpture not by adding and forming pieces but by taking them away bit by bit.  Since the band saw was good only for rough cuts, he swapped it for his Dremel grinder.

He switched on the radio, to drown out the steady whine, and started grating away the first layer where the figure’s head would be. He probably should have worn earplugs for the noise, but the mask and goggles protected him from the fine particles filling the tight confines of his workshop.

He kept working until a rough blob of a walrus finally rested on its ivory ice floe – his mental image of that first sighting when he was out hunting on a foggy day.  Now came the fun part.  With dentist-like tools, he scraped away around the head.  Little by little, he made it rounder and more defined.  He did the same for the flippers and body.  He then carefully chiseled out a space between the neck and tusks.  As the walrus took shape, he added more detail:  skinfolds around the haunches and hindquarters, gentle shoulder muscles, and fine etched lines for fur.  He even gouged out small spots for the eyes and glued in small bits of black whale baleen.

Finally, he was ready for the finishing work.  With a hand tool he’d made from Maytag parts, he polished the whole palm-sized sculpture until every crevice gleamed.  He put the piece aside and stood up, brushing the white dust from his clothes.  He’d sell it to his trader next time he came around.

Learn more…

How much does a walrus ivory carving sell for?

Prices vary depending on location and craftsmanship.  In 2005, for example, a small (three-inch by one-inch) carving of a seal sold for $150 in Gambell but would have sold for $400 in Anchorage.  Similarly in 2005, an Eskimo doll with an ivory face and fur ornaments sold for $200 in Gambell but would have commanded $750 in Anchorage and over $1,000 in New York.

Crafting Walrus-Skin Boats

The captain bent over the bow of his walrus-skin angyapiget frame. Like other Eskimo master boat builders and ship captains in his village, he needed to recover his craft every three or four years. He always used hides from female walruses because they were smoother, more flexible and easier to work with than the skins from older bulls.

The basic design of his skinboat had remained essentially the same for centuries. It looked like a large, round-bottomed canoe, measuring 20-25 feet long and five to six feet wide, and weighed just 500 pounds, light enough for him and his crew to drag across the ice when necessary.  The walrus skin served as an ideal material for the hull, strong enough to carry big loads, up to 25 people and five tons of cargo, but flexible enough to withstand harsh water and weather conditions.

Because walrus catches had declined in recent years, traditional boat building in his village had followed suit. Gambell, Alaska, for example, had 22 walrus-skin boats in 1989 but, as of 2005, only 10 remained. The process required not only know-how but also time and patience.

The five men grunted as they wheeled the first heavy, water-logged hide from the pond to the waiting boat frame. The captain had soaked the two split hides for the past nine days so they’d be easier to stretch and sew.  The men tipped the skin out of the wheelbarrow onto a waiting blanket and went back for the second. They positioned this load as close as they could to the first and dumped it out.  With two men lifting each side, they maneuvered the two hides close to each other, pulling at the edges until they overlapped.

The captain’s wife and the other village skinsewers sat down on folded blankets and scooched underneath the heavy skins. They steadied the flexible material and grabbed the nearest edge. They stitched the top layer using thread twisted and braided from whale sinew (tendon). After each few stitches, they greased the thread with blubber and spread it on the seam for extra waterproofing. Then, with help from the men, the women flipped the now brown skin over and sewed the seams flat to make them watertight.

Now one large hide, weighing perhaps 500 pounds, the men maneuvered it bit by bit onto the hull. They put the tougher blubber side toward the front of the boat, which took more punishment, and the skin side toward the rear.  When they’d managed to get it roughly in place, they tied the skin off loosely with sealskin lashes that they looped over the edges. Then, together, the men stretched the hide. They worked their way around the upside-down wood frame, pulling first one side of the skin and then drawing the opposite side taut. When they’d gone once around, the captain marked where he’d need to cut out for the engine. Instead of having it at the back, where water could splash over and flood it, skinboats put the motor in the middle, to protect it.  With a razor, he sliced the hide alon g his markings and pushed through.  He lashed these new pieces onto the frame and the men began the stretching process once again. A few days later, after the air had slowly dried the skin to its final tautness, the captain inspected the boat. Now for the final touches. He dipped his brush into a can of light blue paint. Unlike in his father’s day, or even in some other communities, he took advantage of the availability of marine paints to preserve the longevity of the boat. With even strokes, he coated the outside of the hull, enjoying the deliberate movements. The old and the modern. Could he maintain the best of both worlds?

Learn more…

How many skins does it take to make one boat? It takes two split skins to cover the frame of one skinboat.

What is a walrus-hide boat called? Angyapiget is the traditional walrus-hide hunting boat in the Siberian Yupik language.  In the Inupiaq language, it is called an umiak.

How has the design of skinboats changed over time? Prior to the 1930s, skinboats had flat bottoms and were made from driftwood.  Since then, the hulls have rounded bottoms and frames are made from commercially -milled hardwood (e.g., hickory or oak).  In addition, marine paints and commercial sealants are now used as a way to preserve the longevity of the skins.

Making Walrus-Skin Boats

Preparing the Hide

The captain and his extended family draped the walrus hides across makeshift sawhorses.  They’d fermented the hide until the hair fell.  Now, with sharpened ulus (a traditional moon-shaped knife with a broad steel blade), they scraped off any remaining bits of fat and muscle.  Their hard work paid off:  a couple hours later the skin appeared pink and smooth.

They put the heavy skin in a wheelbarrow and rolled it to a waiting frame.  They spread it out and pulled it until it filled the 10’ x 10’ square.  With sinew rope, they lashed it to the weathered beams and stretched it tight.  Satisfied it could go no further, they hoisted the frame and secured it so it stood upright.

About two weeks later, after the skin had dried, it was the captain’s wife’s turn. With her right hand, she picked up her ulu.  The wooden handle fit perfectly in her palm.  Years of use had made the blade almost an extension of her arm.  Her daughter sat next to her, watching so she could later mimic her mother’s actions.  Like other traditional ways, each generation passed on the skill of hide splitting to the next one.  Because of its difficulty and importance, the village entrusted only experienced women with the task.  Mistakes could create weak spots in the hide’s ultimate destination – a skinboat – a flaw hunters could ill-afford when out on the open seas.

With careful control, the woman sliced sideways into the one-inch thick hide.  She kept her motions small, knowing her accuracy would diminish if her strokes got too big.  She cut again.  With each slice, she lengthened the gash she’d just made.  Every fifteen minutes or so, she checked her blade so she could sharpen it if necessary.  A dull blade could not only hinder her precision but cause her to “force” a cut and inadvertently nick the skin.  As soon as she completed a portion, she separated it, “butterflying” it open by holding the two (now ½ inch thick) sides apart.

The painstaking custom of hide splitting not only made the skin more flexible and easier to sew bu t also doubled the coverage from a single hide.  As she worked her way bit by bit across the hide, the “second skin” got larger and larger, eventually folding over enough to reach the ground. Two and a half hours later, she finished.  She closed her eyes and stretched the muscles in her hand.  The newly split hide, now about 3 x 6 meters, lay on the ground beside her.

Returning from a Walrus Hunt

The skiff touched the rocky beach as the captain and his nephew hopped out.  Water lapped at their feet as they steadied the boat so the others could get out. The buzz grew louder as four wheelers brought friends and family to the beach.

Old canoes and pile of bones

When they arrived, some grasped the sides of the boat while the others started to unload.  The captain grabbed the top item, a head with ivory tusks still attached, while his nephew pulled out the next one – the kumiyaw or back of the neck, and the most tender part of the skin.  Everyone helped -- someone got the coak (chest skin with attached blubber) while others unloaded the red meat (shoulder blades, ribs and ham, next to the hind flippers), organs (heart, liver and stomach, a lucky bonanza since it was filled with shellfish) and flippers and laid them out on the ice.  Finished, the men dragged the empty boat above the tideline.

Everyone admired the catch. Not like it used to be but not bad. Walrus meat was a staple — like “hamburger” — and sorely missed when absent.  Along with other Native foods, it reinforced both their heritage and connected them to the world around them.

Each crew member set aside a portion of the harvest to feed his family.  They then distributed the rest:  first to elders, then widows, and then other residents.  They’d even save some to send to relatives and friends in Nome and Anchorage.  According to ancient Eskimo philosophy, sharing among all beings made survival possible.  Nobody would be forgotten.

The following videos give you a sense of the traditional hunting culture.

Chukchi whale hunting

Inupiaq whale hunting


Learn more…

How big is Native Alaskan demand for traditional foods?

Overall, demand for Alaska’s traditional foods remains small.  In contrast, other subsistence hunting cultures face growing demand for their traditional foods.  For example, in Central Africa’s rainforest, markets for bushmeat have grown so lucrative that poachers now threaten the species’ survival.  Alaska’s walrus face a parallel threat as ivory, instead of its meat, becomes more and more profitable.

Author, Laurel Neme with dead walrus on Alaska's shoreline

About Walrus

WalrusThe walrus pulled himself along the ocean floor using his tusks as a sled. His long upper canine teeth appeared awkward but served the walrus well: as weapons for fighting, as “canes” for climbing and walking on land (giving rise to the animal’s scientific name, Odobenus rosmarus or toothwalkers), and as “axes” to chip the ice. As he skidded along the bottom, his tough whiskers (or vibrissae) twitched as they felt for clams, his preferred meal. Detecting his prey, he paused. He swished his head back and forth to dig it out but the soft sand hung on to the morsel. The young bull switched tactics. This time, he squirted water through his tongue to hydraulically “drill” the clam out. Success! Using his whiskers like “chopsticks,” he brought the meal to his mouth and inhaled it from its protective home. A second later, he spit out the empty shell and let it drop soundlessly beside the depression he’d just made.

The whole process took only about six seconds, so he had plenty of air to continue his feeding. Because his body had extra blood to carry oxygen, about 12 percent of his weight (compared to seven percent in humans), he could stay underwater for up to 30 minutes. This, along with the special tissue in his ears that equalized water pressure when he dove deep (up to 300 meters), let him scan the ocean floor for food.

The walrus paddled his flat hind flippers along the sea bottom and used his front ones as rudders to steer. Like the rest of his species, this Pacific walrus followed the edge of the melting ice pack north through t he Bering Strait for the veritable smorgasbord it supplied. The melting sea ice released both phytoplankton (or ice algae) and a layer of cold, relatively fresh water simultaneously, spurring an early and vigorous bloom. As the bloom decayed, it nourished the clams, crabs and other crustaceans he liked to eat.

The young bull satiated his appetite and surfaced. His big brownish white head rose just above the frigid water where he eyed his chances for joining the herd. Through the fog, he saw masses of pink and cinnamon-brown bodies huddled together on a large floe. He watched a big bull, almost 11 feet long and close to 2,500 pounds (about the weight of a pickup truck), lift his head above the crowd to search for potential danger. The young male dove. This time, he came up closer to the resting herd. He turned his head away from the large bull, in essence saying “I’m no threat.”

 The newcomer regarded his competition. The younger, smaller walruses lay on the outer perimeter of the group while the more dominant ones rested in the middle, away from the surf and frigid temperatures of the Bering Sea. If he had to, he could wait. Like all walruses, he had an air sac under his throat, called a ‘pharyngeal pouch,’ that he could fill like a life vest to keep his head out of the water. He could even use it to sleep while bobbing in the sea!

The young male waited for the right moment and then, with a big heave, hauled himself awkwardly onto the ice. The old bull bellowed in rage and lifted his meter-long tusks aggressively. The young walrus changed course. He grunted as he scrambled over a smaller animal while, beneath him, the groggy lump snorted in protest and stabbed its tusks into the air. He ignored the din and continued clambering on top of the prostrate herd. When far e nough from the edge, he squeezed himself into the crush of bodies, squiggling and squirming until protected from the constant wind.

The sun peaked through the fog to dry him, albeit slowly. As he warmed up, he gradually changed color -- from muddy brown to pinkish cinnamon. Walruses’ circulatory systems help them adjust to the surrounding temperatures. When warmer, their expanding blood vessels move blood to their blubber and skin so that the air and water can cool them. This makes them pinker. When colder, the opposite happens. Their blood vessels constrict to reduce the flow to their skin and blubber. This saves body heat and turns them browner.

The young bull half-closed his eyes. In the background, he listened to a steady drone of snores, snorts, and whistles while, every now and then, an outburst of flatulence, roars or clacking teeth signaled a walrus renegotiating its basking position. At last, the continuous, slow, undulating motion of the ice floe rocked the tired walrus to sleep. Ahhhh!

Learn More…

Why is there a layer of relatively fresh water on the sea when ice melts? The water in this layer is less salty because when ice crystals form, salt is expelled. Because this fresher water is less dense than the salt water, it floats on top of the water column, thus forming a thin, relatively well-defined layer at the surface of the sea.

What is the temperature of the Bering Sea? Bering Sea surface temperatures average around 20-30 ° F in May and less than 40 ° F in June.

Why does an early bloom of phytoplankton occur on the edge of melting sea ice? The bloom occurs because the ice algae are “trapped” in the fresh water layer near the surface where there is plenty of light for photosynthesis. The result is rapid growth, a phytoplankton “bloom” which occurs much earlier than would be the case without the melting ice.


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