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St. Lawrence Island Ivory

Off the northwest coast of Alaska, thirty-two miles from Siberia, lies St. Lawrence island. One thousand Siberian Yupik Eskimos live in the two villages of Gambell and Savoonga.

During a few short weeks in the spring and fall, these people venture out in their open boats, as their ancestors have for thousands of years, to hunt walrus and whales. They are legally allowed to hunt these animals for subsistence. The whale hunts are supervised by the International Whaling Commission, and they are allowed a limited number of attempts to harvest an animal. If they fail, the village does without for the winter. They live entirely on the fish, berries, seals, walrus and whales that are harvested during the warmer months.

During the winter, temperatures can approach 100 degrees below zero. The people spend most of their time indoors carving ivory and whalebone to generate income with which they can buy fuel oil, ammunition, fishing supplies and gasoline. These artists work with walrus, ivory, bailen from the Bowhead whale, whale bone and fossil ivory dug up from the beaches during the summer. Every part of any animal harvested is used.

The ivory is dug from ancient village campsites which can be from 500 to 2,000 years old. The color of this fossil ivory will depend on the mineral content of the soil and the age of the site in which it was unearthed. These American Eskimos live much the same life as their ancestors, isolated from the mainland and dependent upon their skills to survive. Their art has played an important part in allowing them to maintain their culture and lifestyle.