IVORY STORIES

IVORY STORIES

My wife and I have had the pattern of giving some unique ivory items, which came into our possession, to the Alaska State Museum. Here is the story of two of the items:

Ivory Ink Pen with totemic designs.

This was given to me in 1972 by a man who stayed (slept) in our Juneau Church for two weeks after we had closed the church to regular usage.  We were obviously doing him a favor, but he was also helpful to us, as it was essentially an abandoned building when he stayed there.  He gave me this history of the item:   “This item was a personal gift from Bessie M. Golze, Phoenix, Arizona, about 1962. She died of cancer in 1964.  She left me 1/2 of the estate.  The item was purchased in Nome about 1920 when she was backtracking her father’s diary to write a book on gold rush days.”

As I researched the item, some had the opinion that it was probably plastic and made in the Orient.

An Indian artist gave me the strong opinion that it was made of ivory. He had read that some Indians from S. E. Alaska had moved to the Nome area in the Gold Rush and perhaps they had combined the two forms of art: totem design and ivory.  In general, Eskimo carvers did not have a history of totemic design.

This piece belongs to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, Alaska.

WALRUS TUSK etching.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I went regularly to St. Lawrence Island to relate to the Presbyterian Churches in Savoonga and Gambell.  On one of my trips, I got a phone call from an elderly woman in Nome who wanted me to bring a walrus tusk from the island to her.  I did so, as it fit under the seat, but in delivering it to her, I asked her what she intended to do with it. She was going to do some etching. I asked if I could see it when it was completed.  A few weeks later, she let me know that it was done and I was allowed to see it.

It was different than anything I have ever seen. I was overwhelmed.  1/2 of the tusk was covered with all of the tools and clothing items that she could remember from her childhood. A piece of history in itself. On the other side, she had etched in scenes of a whale hunt.

I asked her what she was doing to do with the etched tusk and she indicated she would be selling it.  I asked her about the price. She indicated it would be $600.  I asked her if I could buy it and the answer was yes.  I wrote out a check immediately. No haggling over price that day.

Eventually we donated the item to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, Alaska, where it will be protected and shared for many generations.

IVORY BUSINESS

For a short period of time, we operated an ivory business, primarily to help some individuals who were not being given full value for their work. One man (William Kaputak) made ivory beads.  He had turned a pedal Singer sewing machine into a lathe.  The Smithsonian Institute purchased one from him to demonstrate his skill in making do with what was at hand.  Then he had to buy another Singer sewing machine and make another lathe.

The first summer I was in Nome a gentleman came from Ohio to help us with building issues and he was always complaining about the fact that I didn’t have this tool or that tool for his work. I took him to see William. When he saw the lathe and the saw William had made from the spring in a clock, the visitor stopped complaining and made do with what he had. William used the saw to cut little cubes from the ivory tusk and then he used the lathe to shape them into round balls. I do not know what he used to drill a hole in the beads.

We paid William 50% more than he could get from local dealers, so we became his sole customer. I think most of the United Methodist clergy wives in Alaska at that time ended up with a beautiful ivory bead necklace.

One of the most unusual pieces we have is two bowhead eardrums stacked on one another and covered with birds. This was a very valuable piece that I didn’t wish to own, but the artist was desperate to get to Anchorage and I purchased his work for a round trip plane ticket to Anchorage. We intend to give this to the Nome Museum eventually.  It is a wonderful example of the creative imagination of many of the carvers in Northwest Alaska.

One of the premier ivory carvers was Floyd Kingeekuk of Savoonga. He often stayed with us when he was in Nome. He shared with me that he was depressed because he had more orders than he could fill. I advised him to double the price and then he would get less orders. I was wrong. He still got orders and he still felt the constant pressure. When I first advised him he was getting $75 for each seal in a four seal set.  Total of $300 for four. The last I checked (he is now deceased) he was getting $300 for each seal and $1200 for a set. People were still buying. He needed money immediately, so I jumped ahead in the line. I own one seal. Make me an offer! And start at something over $300 please.

At one point I tried to collect one piece from each carver that we know personally, thinking it would be a nice gift to the church, but security issues and the knowledge that many people do not value such items, we never made that donation. We arranged for a wonderful piece of art by Merice Richner to be given to a church in Illinois that was supporting my ministry in the 1960’s. Recently (in the 2010’s) I checked with the church and the pastor had just discovered the work of art in a storage room. This is reality. I offered to take it off their hands, but he thought they would rehang it on his watch. We may never know.

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