St. Lawrence Island is a hard place to live. Just 35 miles from Siberia, it sits in the vortex of brutally cold currents of the Bering Strait. The warmest day of the year - all year - every year - is just 50 degrees fahrenheit. Yet, people live there.
They are Yupik Eskimos. They have lived there for as long as any people have lived in North America.
How do they survive? It's too cold to grow crops. They survive by building skin-covered boats and setting out into the Bering Strait to catch dinner from sea. A successful catch requires towing home a mega-mammal behind their flimsy boats.
It's demanding, dangerous work. But they have no choice. It's that or starve. So they persist, as they have for centuries,
Setting aside the romanticization of whales (who doesn't love the playful whales an insurance company features in their TV commercials?), these hearty hunters must go out whaling or die.
Sometimes it is both.
In this unforgiving world, winter nights are looooong. Hours and hours of frigid darkness before the sun appears again. In summer, the reverse prevails with endless days of sunlight.
What do the Yupiks do with that time? They hunt for food and they carve. Learning from their elders, they become prolific artists creating effigies of the creatures who share their world. They consider it a way to honor the sea life that feeds them.
Yupiks believe the bits and bones left over after the edible parts of the meal have been consumed contain the spirits of their providers. This is the material the sea goddess Sedna provides for them to carve. Just as the blubber provides nutrition, what's left and inedible eventually becomes carvings to sell to the outside world to pay for things the hunt can't provide.
Jason Nowpakohok was a young Yupik who lived with his family in the native community of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. At 38 years he had become the mayor of Gambell. In 2005, he and his 11-year old daughter set off in his 16-foot skin boat to bring home dinner for the community. They succeeded in getting a large whale intto tow.
Even with the help other hunters, it must have looked like Lilliputians bring ing Gulliver. The sea was not helping. It churned up dangerous chop and difficult swells. Jason and his daughter never made it back to St. Lawrence Island,
I learned about this years later when researching about a Jason Nowpakahok walrus tusk carving of a polar bear mother and her two cubs, which Jason had signed. We had acquired it in 2004, a year before that tragic event.
As I think about it, several things come to mind. First, every work of native art has a tale to tell. Each isa part of native culture.
Second, people hunt, harvest and work to express their innner-most feelings about thier cultures: The Inuit do not hunt for fun. Or for scraps of bone and tusk to carve. They harvest whales and other sea life to eat. They carve those materials because they let nothing go to waste.
Third, the highest motives of institutions trying to protect species by enacting sweeping rules - i.e. restricting the sale of all ivory to protect elephant ivory when it restricts non-elephant ivory - often has unintended, unfortunate consequences, like denying hard-earned sustenance from people who benefit from maintaining the health of their resources.