In Quinhagak, An Ivory Carver Pays Tribute To The Ancients' Work

Sep 13, 2017

John Smith in his ivory carving workshop. Smith is struggling to replicate the ancestral work that volunteers have found at Nunalleq, but he says that the process has been difficult.
Credit Teresa Cotsirilos/KYUK

After uncovering hundreds of artifacts, an exhausted team of archeologists on the Bering Sea coast just finished their dig at Nunalleq for the year. They plan to return to the 700-year-old village next summer. Provided, of course, that the winter storms don’t wash it away.

The discoveries at Nunalleq have had a quiet but profound effect on several residents. One of them is John Smith, an elder, former tribal judge, and longtime traditional ivory carver who’s struggling to replicate the ancestral work that has been found. 

John Smith’s workshop is a cramped, one-room house that he built himself, about the size of your average closet. The floor is cluttered with walrus tusks, dremels, owl feathers, and at least three different kinds of saws. An old paint can is piled with ivory scraps near the drill press. He is using contemporary tools to replicate the work of ancient artisans.

"I can’t beat those people," Smith said of his ancestors' work. "Even with my files I have and with my dremel tool that I have. They had a lot of patience and they were persistent, and I think they were a lot, maybe 10 times stronger than us."

Smith’s been busy this summer. The day before we met, he said that he was commissioned to make four ivory figurines: two small grayling, a replica of a bear tooth, and a miniature bear. He shows me a picture of a spirit mask he carved recently. It took hours of cutting and shaping, filing, sanding and polishing.

"It’s a scrimshaw on the back of a man," explained Smith, "who was rescued by a seal. He became a woman. He was on a sandbar…"

Smith’s story went on for some time. The hunter capsizes on a narrow sandbar and loses his kayak. A bearded seal rescues him and then becomes his spouse. When he finished the story, Smith grinned and said that he made it up - the stories play well with customers.

"I had to do that!" he said with a laugh. "Guys always ask, ‘is there a story behind this?’ So I had to make up a story."

Smith learned to carve and sell ivory as a child in Hooper Bay. He remembers the sod houses at his grandparents’ winter camp, and how they were damp in the morning. Smith used to haul water for his grandparents, empty their honey buckets, and hunt for them. And he remembers walking along the beach with his grandfather, looking for the right kind of wood to work with.

"Hard wood to make bows and arrows," Smith said. "Material needed for sleds, kayaks. I used to watch my grandpa make arrows, bows. And I watched my uncle carve."

Smith's uncle was an excellent ivory carver. He made bracelets, rings, and earrings. As a boy, Smith sold his uncle’s work to teachers and doctors in the village. Each piece went for as much as $25. As Smith grew older, his uncle taught him how to carve and encouraged him.

"He told me," Smith said, "[that] the ivory will become like putty in my hands, like it is for him. I will start molding it like him."

As an adult, Smith moved to Quinhagak and worked as a magistrate, then a tribal judge. Before that he worked as a cop for a while. He carved ivory in his spare time and used the extra money to pay for home repairs or a new snowmachine.

When local leaders and archeologists began to excavate the Nunalleq site, Smith said that the trove of artifacts they found surprised him. Over the years he’d heard a few elders say that something was buried outside of town, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was.

"There was an elderly man who came here," Smith said, "and he told us that the people here are walking on money.

"And he told us, 'whatever the people find here, make replicas.' At the the time I didn’t even know what he meant by that."

That’s exactly what Smith is doing today. When the Nunalleq volunteers find something new, Smith carves a copy of it. His replicas of these artifacts sell for $100 each and Smith can often carve three or four of them in a day.