St. Lawrence Island’s Legal Market in Archaeological Goods

By: Julie Hollowell

      We tend to characterize all undocumented digging as illicit looting, but sometimes it can be a legitimate activity and part of a legal trade in antiquities. In either case, ethnographic studies of these activities have much to offer archaeologists and others who have concerns about conserving the archaeological record in situ. In 1995, I began exploring an extensive legal market for archaeological materials that originates in the Bering Strait region of Alaska, whose materials predominantly come from St. Lawrence Island. The two Alaska Native Corporations that own St. Lawrence Island manage their archaeological resources as a form of economic capital, allowing their indigenous shareholders to excavate sites for old marine mammal bone, walrus ivory, and artifacts to sell. People on St. Lawrence Island do not think of themselves as “looters” in any sense of the word, but as subsistence diggers1 of “old things.”

      This situation provides an opportunity to take a closer look at the complex nature of an artifact and antiquities market -- a legal one, at that -- and some of the processes that create demand. It also clearly shows that archaeologists are one among a number of different stakeholders who make claims on the material past. First I describe the composition of this market in archaeological goods, the products it encompasses, and the range of its activities, followed by a look at some of the sociohistorical contexts that have given rise to the commodification of these excavated materials. Then I consider the effects, at least in this case, of the existence of a legal market on the supply and demand of these archaeological commodities and on site destruction. Finally, I return to the dilemma of subsistence digging and how archaeology might proceed under these circumstances. 

Location and Cultural Background

      St. Lawrence Island (Map 5.1) {Map 5.1 near here} lies in the northern reaches of the Bering Sea, right in the path of major migrations of marine mammals as they funnel through the strait between Asia and North America. Paleontologists estimate that a drop of only 46 meters in sea level here would expose a land bridge several hundred miles wide linking Asia and the Americas, as it did approximately 10,000 years ago (Hopkins 1967: 464). The bridge would not appear, as one might think, at the narrowest portion of the Strait between the tiny Diomede Islands and Cape Prince of Wales (only forty miles across) -- here strong currents have naturally cut a much deeper channel -- but to the south, in the shallow waters surrounding St. Lawrence Island (ibid: 460).

      Marine mammal migrations, though sometimes fatally unpredictable, offered an abundance of food and raw materials that attracted and sustained a relatively large population on St. Lawrence and the other Bering Strait islands over a long period, compared to many Northern locales. St. Lawrence Island’s most populous settlements of long ago lie adjacent to places where, for thousand of years, herds of walrus hauled out along the shore (Ackerman 1988: 61-63; Northern Resource Management and Yeti Map Studio 1984: 27). Episodic mass mortalities at these haul-out sites left literally tons of ivory and bone (Fay 1980). Over the past two millennia or more, human occupants on both sides of the Strait undoubtedly gathered ivory and bone from these ancient deposits for use in trade and in local production of tools, house structures, and all kinds of utilitarian and decorative objects, supplementing the materials they procured from their own marine mammal harvests.

      Today St. Lawrence Island is home to around 1400 Yupik people living in two permanent villages—Gambell (Sivuqaq) and Savoonga. Gambell lies at the northwest tip of the island, only forty miles from the Chukotkan peninsula of Russia and 200 miles from the Alaskan mainland. Savoonga sits on the northern coast, between two large former village sites—Ivetok to the west, and Kukulik, to the east. Family hunting and fishing camps and subsistence areas dot the entire perimeter of the island, often right next to thousand-year-old middens. Several flights a day shuttle people, mail, and other goods between St. Lawrence Island and the Alaskan city of Nome, which serves as a hub for the Bering Strait region.

      St. Lawrence Island Yupik, as they prefer to call themselves, are one of many Inuit groups living in the circumpolar Arctic today. Their language, history, and cultural practices differentiate them from other Alaskan Inuit peoples—the Inupiat, who inhabit Seward Peninsula and the northern coasts of Alaska, and the Yup’ik peoples of the Yukon-Kuskokwim basin to the south—and connect them closely to the 1200 or so Siberian Yupik people living along the coast of the Chukotkan peninsula of Russia. Visits to and from the Russian mainland occurred regularly in times past (not always in a friendly manner, according to oral histories), until the Bering Strait closed to international travel in 1948 due to the Cold War. In 1989, the border re-opened, at least for those who can muster the proper visas, and intermittent crossings by boat and plane now take place.

      In the late 1920s and 1930s, Otto Geist, an adventurer-turned-archaeologist sponsored by the Alaska College, and archaeologist Henry Collins of the Smithsonian Institution conducted separate multi-year excavations at several locations on St. Lawrence Island. In Gambell, Collins documented two thousand years of continuous occupation in a series of adjacent sites known for their distinctive material culture (Collins 1937; Geist and Rainey 1936). Findings from these “type sites” allowed him to formulate an initial cultural chronology for Bering Strait prehistory (Collins 1937, 1959), one that archaeologists have continued to use and revise, incorporating new data and interpretations (Bandi 1969; Bronshtein and Plumet 1995; Dumond and Bland 2002; Gerlach and Mason 1992; Mason 2000).

      The earliest documented cultural materials from St. Lawrence Island date from around 2000-2300 BP and include intricately engraved ivories in styles named “Okvik” and “Old Bering Sea.” Except for a few pieces that have turned up on the Alaskan mainland, these artifact styles are found exclusively on St. Lawrence Island and along the Chukotkan coast of Russia. While “Okvik” materials are generally thought to be older, some archaeologists make a case for the overlap and contemporaneity of Okvik and Old Bering Sea styles, rather than interpreting them as consecutive cultures in a discrete linear sequence. The possibility also exists that the designs might mark distinctions among different ethnic affiliations that co-existed on St. Lawrence Island over a millennium ago (Bronshtein 2003; Bronshtein and Plumet 1995; Mason 2000).

      Around A.D. 500, “Punuk-style” artifacts appear on the Alaskan mainland and on the Bering Sea islands, less intricate in design and associated with larger habitations and an emphasis on whaling. The gradual transition to even simpler “Thule-style” artifacts, which apparently spread westward across the Canadian Arctic, occurred around A.D. 1200 and lasted until c. A.D. 1700, when the historic period ushered in many changes in technology, goods, and materials.

      Archaeological information about St. Lawrence Island has come almost exclusively from sites along the coast, which typically consist of winter (semi-subterranean) and summer (above ground) dwellings in settlements of various sizes and associated burials, meat caches, and other features. Centuries of occupation in the same location have created middens with cultural layers several meters deep. The preservation of organic materials is excellent due to the ubiquitous permafrost, but coastal erosion has washed away large portions of many sites. What’s left has been mined persistently by ivory diggers for several generations. In some places, people have even tried diving for old ivory and artifacts. No archaeological work has taken place in the island’s interior, though the possibility of finding cultural evidence from yet earlier millennia at higher elevations has intrigued more than one researcher.

      The tiny Punuk Islands, just off the southeast corner of St. Lawrence Island, have yielded many tons of valuable old ivory since the early 1930s, when Otto Geist called the attention of local hunters to extensive underground caches. Decades of ivory mining have taken their toll. Besides depleting the stock of old ivory, I’m told that digging has ruined the water table, and hunters who head to the Punuks now must carry their own drinking water. The Punuk Islands have also been the main findspot of Okvik-style figurines (Figure 5.1){figure 5.1 near here}, so highly valued in the art world today. Only a few of these have ever been documented in situ, and it looks unlikely that any more ever will.

      The source of most old ivory appears to be caches of tusks, ivory chunks, and artifacts, but some also comes from natural deposits created by walrus fatalities in haulout areas. Whole tusks have become harder for local ivory hunters to find, making them even more valuable on the market. One thing is certain; a great deal of archaeological information about early life and cultural interactions on the island and in the Bering Strait region will never be recovered due to the extensive undocumented digging for old ivory, and, more recently, for artifacts and bone.

Subsistence and Digging

      Like many Arctic communities, St. Lawrence Islanders practice a mixed cash-and-subsistence economy, one that combines hunting and gathering, the utilization of local resources to acquire desired goods, home-based industry, and wage labor in flexible and innovative ways (Condon 1983: 161; see especially Nuttall 1998). The ideology and practice of subsistence permeate daily life and the annual cycle in this place where jobs are scarce and costs of living exorbitant. Most households depend on locally procured foods for more than half their diet, derived primarily from marine mammal sources (walrus, seal, and whale) and supplemented with fish, waterfowl, eggs, green plants, and berries. Seasonal unemployment rates of up to 75%, along with the high costs of outfitting a subsistence hunter and of living in general, mean that people look for whatever ways they can to make ends meet. Along with carvings made from newly harvested ivory and a few other arts and crafts produced for the tourist market, the sale of old ivory, bone, and artifacts is one of the only ways people have to obtain cash that does not depend on government subsidies.

      Subsistence activities are integral to cultural identity. They provide a deep connection to the land and sea, their resources, and all kinds of indigenous knowledge (e.g. about weather, hunting practices, survival skills, and animal behavior). St. Lawrence Islanders still use skinboats covered with split walrus hide when they head out after a bowhead whale. A person’s worth is often judged by his or her skill in providing Native foods to the family or village. The right to continue to practice a subsistence lifestyle occupies a focal place in the ongoing struggles for Native sovereignty that St. Lawrence Islanders share with other Alaska Natives and with Inuit across the circumpolar region, as well as with Indigenous peoples worldwide. 

      Digging for ivory and artifacts fits well with the economic landscape of St. Lawrence Island and ideology of subsistence. During late summer, as soon as the permafrost starts to recede, people of all ages spend time at their digging spots after work, on weekends, or between other subsistence activities like fishing, hunting, drying meat, preparing skin boats, and picking greens and berries.3 Digging for ivory and artifacts has much in common with other subsistence hunting and gathering practices found in Arctic communities (for more information on characteristics of Arctic economies, see Krupnik 1993 and Nuttall 1998), including a seasonal harvest; uncertainty of supply; unpredictable day-to-day returns; a strong connection to ancestral lands; and the ability to combine well with other activities (both on a daily basis, while out on a hunt, and in the overall scheme of things). St. Lawrence Islanders also justify digging as subsistence-related because it transforms local resources into cash that people can use to fund the escalating costs of subsistence hunting. Sometimes they refer to artifacts in the ground as gifts the ancestors left so that people today could survive in a cash economy.

A Legal Market for Archaeological Goods?

      St. Lawrence Island is the source of arguably one of the most extensive legal markets in archaeological goods in the world today. What makes this commercial use of archaeological resources legal?

      Unlike most countries, United States property laws consider archaeological materials that come from private lands (with the exception of human remains) as the property of the landowner, who then has the right to sell them on the open market. In contrast, on public (state and federal) lands in the United States, excavating without a permit has been illegal since the Antiquities Act of 1906, and any archaeological resources that come from the ground belong to the state. Relic collectors and amateur archaeologists have long taken advantage of this inconsistency between private and public property, conducting legal digs in sites on private land and selling or swapping materials at “relic shows.” Today, over a dozen states in the U.S., including my home of Indiana, now require anyone who knowingly digs into an archaeological site, even one located on private land, to first obtain a permit from the state.

      Vast areas of Alaska still fall under the jurisdiction of public lands, but in 1971, as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Native lands in Alaska became privately-owned property, unlike tribal lands in other U.S. states. The 1971 land claims settlement gave Alaska’s indigenous peoples the “right” to enroll as shareholders in Native corporations, which received land—about 11% of the state—and money—over US $960 million—in exchange for relinquishing all future claims to aboriginal lands and title (Arnold 1978). The two Native corporations of St. Lawrence Island refused the money and chose instead to settle for more land. As a result, they received full title to the entire island and its subsurface rights. This choice left the St. Lawrence Island corporations with no capital to invest or dividends to distribute, but it gave them close to three-and-a-half times more land than if they had taken the monetary settlement (BIA 1977: 126-7; Jorgensen 1990: 29-30). No one on the island seems to regret this decision. In the words of one elder, “We didn’t take the land claims money, and I’m glad for that. We have our land here; that money would go away, but the land won’t.”

      Today the island is private property, owned jointly by the Sivuqaq and Savoonga Native Corporations. The Native corporations firmly restrict digging for ivory, bone, or artifacts to their shareholders, but otherwise currently do little to regulate either the digging or the sale of finds.  The unwritten rule is one of “finders keepers,” though other informal use rules guide how people stake and maintain a claim to a digging spot.

      The thirteen regional and 203 village-level Native Corporations in Alaska demonstrate a wide range of responses to subsistence digging on their lands. Several have policies that prohibit or discourage digging. Others tolerate it, especially in the Bering Strait, where old ivory has long played an important economic role. At least one Bering Strait village corporation allows its shareholders to dig in most places, but prohibits excavations at one highly visible significant site.4

      The importance of commercial digging on St. Lawrence Island relates to the fact that no other location in Alaska has a comparable quantity or quality of marketable archaeological goods. Each year, dealers spend an estimated one-and-a-half-million dollars on the island in purchases of old ivory, aged bone, and artifacts. This figure seems large, but divided among the local population it comes to less than US $1000 per person. Once these materials leave the island, they move through various networks of producers and distributors to consumers (see my attempt to diagram this in Figure 5.2) {Figure 5.2. near here}, their values typically doubling each time they change hands.

The Market

      The market for St. Lawrence Island’s archaeological goods consists of an astonishing range of products, most of which end up on the Alaskan tourist market. Figure 5.3 depicts the market as a pyramid with several tiers.5 {Figure 5.3 near here} Bulk quantities of archaeological bone and ivory sold as raw materials make up the broad, “low” end, and the few singular objects found each year that head to the art market are represented at the peak or “high” end. First I discuss the raw materials and briefly describe their transformations as they move through the market. Then I turn to worked objects sold as artifacts and collectible remnants of the past, and how they surface in the market. Discussions about antiquities markets often deal only with those things that surface on the “high end” of the market and tend to neglect other dimensions, but in this case, and probably in others, high-end antiquities represent only one aspect of a much larger phenomenon associated with undocumented digging.

Archaeological goods sold as raw materials: “fossil” walrus ivory and marine mammal bone

      The bulk of the market consists of old walrus ivory and marine mammal bone, gathered from old settlement sites, digging spots, and eroding middens along the coast. Local residents sell these materials by the pound to ivory and bone buyers who typically fly out to the island to make their purchases. A handful of wholesale dealers make several trips a year to the island, and they account for the main volume of these sales.

      Diggers gather close to five tons of old walrus ivory on St. Lawrence Island each year. Whole tusks have grown harder and harder to find, but, by some accounts, they still comprise around one-half ton of the total (somewhere between 200 and 300 tusks a year). The remainder consists of chunks of tusk, small pieces of scrap ivory, and thousands of walrus teeth. Buyers who come to the island pay anywhere from US $30 to US $120 a pound for old ivory, depending on its size, coloring, and condition. Sometimes St. Lawrence Islanders pack old ivory or artifacts with them when they travel to cities like Nome or Anchorage, where they can exchange these materials for a substance less easy to come by on the island—cash.

      Walrus ivory differs significantly from mammoth and mastodon ivory (also found, though less frequently, in the Bering Strait and sold for carving) and from elephant ivory in its solid composition, which refuses to fracture in layers, and its mottled inner core that runs the length of the tusk. All over Alaska, in tourist centers and rural villages alike, people refer to old, excavated ivory as “fossil” ivory. Old ivory, however, isn’t fossilized at all, but mineralized from contact with iron, salt, and other substances in soil and water, a process that creates hues ranging from light tan or yellow to dark brown, mottled peach, or a deep blue-black.

      By contrast, new or “white” ivory refers to recently procured ivory that has never been buried in the ground. This distinction becomes important because today, unlike old ivory, new “white” ivory cannot legally be marketed as a raw material, except among Alaska Natives (a status defined, regrettably, according to 25% blood quantum). This policy took effect in 1972, when the U.S. passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The act contained an exemption that allows Alaska Natives to continue hunting marine mammals for noncommercial subsistence purposes and also permits Alaska Natives to utilize byproducts from subsistence hunting to create arts and crafts for the commercial market. Since the MMPA does not apply to marine mammal materials harvested before the passage of the act in 1972, unworked “pre-act” ivory and bone, including any from archaeological sites, can still be sold on the open market (e.g. to non-Natives).

      With the passage of the MMPA, non-Native carvers and artisans no longer had legal access to unworked new, white ivory. Many switched to using ivory from extinct sources (e.g. mammoth and mastodon) and long-buried walrus ivory. In essence, the MMPA may protect living species, but it also has had the effect of shifting market demand toward archaeological sources of ivory and bone.

      The market for “fossil” ivory has a long and stable history, but the sale of large quantities of old whale and walrus bone developed relatively recently, over the past twenty-five years, in response to requests from wholesale dealers seeking a larger, cheaper carving medium. People on the island were more than happy to find a market for bones that had piled up around digging sites. Today several St. Lawrence Island entrepreneurs gather marketable bone, and sort it into piles to bleach and dry. An estimated ten tons of old whale and walrus bone leave the island annually. Dealers pay from US $1.25 a pound for porous whalebone to US $3 a pound for walrus jawbone and other dense varieties. Though most old bone sells as a raw material, many of these pieces, particularly large whale bones, have had former lives centuries ago as components of a house or another structure. In other words, they are artifacts too—just not such finely worked ones. A few specialty bones, such as skulls, eardrums, vertebral disks, or oosiks (penis bones), sell by the piece and fetch much higher prices. The market for these “curiosities” is on the rise, and several shops now display unmodified old bones for sale, alongside an array of products created from old ivory.

Archaeological bone and ivory in contemporary arts and crafts

      The production of old ivory and bone from raw materials into marketable goods takes place in local, regional, and global locations and encompasses a wide range of arts and crafts.

      Local production. Artisans on St. Lawrence Island, known for their skill in ivory carving and other arts and crafts, often use old bone and ivory since it is a readily available local resource (Figure 5.5) {Figure 5.5 near here}. Most Native carvers prefer new or white ivory when they can get it (since it can’t be sold to non-Natives until it is worked), but they rely on old ivory for color contrast or when stocks of white ivory are low. Carvers who work with marine mammal bone always favor aged bone, as newer bone reeks of the oil that fills its pores and is more difficult to work. The majority of locally made arts and crafts are sold to wholesale dealers who in turn market them to retailers in Alaska and specialty shops across the U.S. 

      Regional production. The wholesale dealers stockpile old ivory and bone purchased on the island in warehouses and garages in Anchorage or Juneau to sell to individual carvers or carving workshops. Regional production of archaeological bone and ivory ranges from workshops that use immigrant labor to mass produce goods for the tourist market using blatant appropriations of Native designs and motifs to fine artists and craftsmen who transform these raw materials into distinctive (and expensive) art forms.

      “St. Lawrence Island fossil ivory” turns up in a fantastic array of products in gift shops across Alaska—everything from belt buckles, earrings, and wall hangings to baskets full of polished ivory chips and walrus teeth selling for US $5 an ounce. Labels on these goods deliberately draw upon cultural tropes and the lure of the past, advertising them as “expressions from long lost millennia found in the frozen earth of ancient villages.” At the same time, concerns among tourists and other consumers about animal rights and endangered species have inspired Alaskan retailers to promote goods made from old ivory as “the morally acceptable choice” since “no animals were killed to make this piece”! In reality this attitude subtly endorses subsistence digging and non-Native carvers, who can only work with old ivory, while maligning subsistence hunting and the work of Native ivory carvers. The irony is that old ivory and other materials from archaeological sources are equally endangered, even more finite, and non-renewable.

      Global production. Wholesale dealers sell old ivory for anywhere from US $80 to US $250 a pound to specialty carvers and to networks of distributors who use websites and mail-order businesses to supply craftspeople all over the world. Among the most dedicated consumers of old ivory are custom craftsmen who make scrimshaw, jewelry, knife and gun handles, and musical instruments. These artisans used to work with elephant ivory, sperm whale teeth, or newly harvested “white” walrus ivory, but various trade bans—the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the global ban on elephant ivory—now restrict the use of these alternatives. As a result of these trade bans, the pressure on old ivory excavated from Native lands in the Bering Strait to serve as a legal substitute for other forms of ivory has definitely increased. Some countries regulate the import of old or new walrus ivory under CITES, but in many cases crossing borders requires some minimal paperwork and a permitting fee.6 Whale bone is a different story; it is both less desired as an exotic material and subject to much more stringent import and export restrictions.
      The out-sourcing of old ivory and bone for overseas production is another global phenomenon associated with archaeological materials from St. Lawrence Island. Several dealers and manufacturers export archaeological walrus bone and old ivory to workshops in Indonesia and Hong Kong For US $5 a day they employ displaced carvers who once specialized in elephant ivory to replicate carvings to their specifications, often using “Eskimo-style” designs (Melzer 1995). These products are imported back to Alaska, where they compete with Native-made work on gift shop shelves.7 Some dealers use overseas labor for piecework, hiring carvers in Asian workshops to make hundreds of faces or hands for “Eskimo-style” figurines that will be assembled back in Alaska.

      One day I found an intriguing example of global out-sourcing of raw materials in an Anchorage gift shop owned by one of the large wholesalers of archaeological materials—an Old Bering sea-style harpoon head like those used on St. Lawrence Island a thousand years ago (Figure 5.6) {Figure 5.6 near here}. After several rounds of questioning, the clerk admitted that this was a replica, carved in Bali from old ivory, which probably had been purchased on St. Lawrence Island. I later took this piece to Savoonga and showed it to some diggers. Upon inspection, they soon realized it was recently made and voiced ample concern that inauthentic pieces like this could ruin the market for the real thing.

The artifact market

      St. Lawrence Islanders find all kinds of artifacts along with old ivory when they dig. People save any artifact made from ivory, but a digger will also collect any tools or other worked objects of bone, antler, wood, and slate in good, marketable condition. Whole, unbroken artifacts are difficult to find and also difficult to extract from the permafrost without breakage, but even fragments of artifacts are gathered and sold by the pound. On the island artifacts sell for anywhere from US $40 a pound for wet and broken old tools, to US $10 apiece for small, undecorated objects, and up to US $60,000 for a single exceptional piece. Some of the same wholesale dealers who handle bulk archaeological materials also buy artifacts. Other “artifact dealers” travel to the island specifically to purchase “old things.”

      With the exception of a few pieces each year that head straight for the art market, artifacts end up in shops in all the tourist centers of Alaska, selling as souvenirs and collectibles (Figure 5.7) {Figure 5.7. near here}. Visitors to Juneau, Skagway, or Anchorage can hardly overlook the broken pieces glued onto 3 x 5 cards, selling as “ancient Eskimo artifacts.” Most gift shops or galleries have at least a display case with old tools and harpoon heads for sale. Some sell framed groupings known as “St. Lawrence Island Artifact Boards” that constitute a ready-made relic collection. Artifacts can also be “born again,” fashioned into knife handles, worn as pendants, or used as a base for scrimshaw. Others end up sawed into pieces and made into jewelry. Interestingly, many people who see nothing wrong with selling whole artifacts draw the line here, and consider it morally reprehensible to cut them into pieces.

High-end artifacts: the art market

      The segment of the market that typically receives the most attention includes the engraved, decorative Old Bering Sea-, Okvik- and Punuk-style objects that fetch high prices on the global market for “tribal” or “primitive” art (Figure 5.8) {Figure 5.8 near here}. Perhaps ten or twelve pieces out of the tons of marketable materials pulled from the ground in a year have qualities that make them desirable to art dealers and collectors. Any digger who finds an ivory animal, a human figure, a “winged object” (sometimes called a “butterfly”), or any decorated, unbroken object will save it to show to a high-end dealer. Some St. Lawrence Islanders send photos or even videos of objects to a small pool of potential buyers. These days diggers -- familiar with the price estimates next to their pieces in auction and gallery catalogs -- ask very high prices for particular pieces, often higher than any buyer is willing to pay. Setting a high price is one way St. Lawrence Islanders try to offset the limited access they have to buyers and other networks in the art market.

      Over the past twenty years, just two or three art dealers have served as the direct links between diggers and the art world. They fly to the island near the end of the summer to see what has come out of the ground and meet with individual diggers to negotiate prices directly. After several weeks based in Nome, they return to Seattle or New York with a handful of objects, which they will selectively invite clients or other dealers to see.

      Auctions function in the art world as channels for re-circulating goods, and, more importantly, as places where value and provenance are validated and become public record.9 To date, the highest price paid at auction for a Bering Strait ivory is US $122,000, but collectors will pay even more in private transactions with dealers. The best pieces found each year on St. Lawrence Island, however, never go straight to auction. Dealers always save them for the eyes of special, preferred clients. Nothing is more thrilling to many collectors than to have a dealer give them “first pick” of a newly excavated artifact, one never before “seen” by the art world and never “walked around” in public at an auction (i.e., a “virgin” piece). The naming of objects as “ritual” or “shamanic,” the association with “classical” forms (e.g., broken pieces become “torsos”) and primitivist art, their visual aesthetics and polymorphic qualities all enhance the value of these distinctive archaeological ivories from the Bering Strait.

      As the diagram of the market in Figure 5.2 (see Figure 5.2 page ???) indicates, the art world and its buyers exist in a niche of their own, far removed from the source community. Almost all of the objects that surface in the art market come from dealers or private collections and have been excavated since the 1970s, marking the moment when many Native lands in Alaska became private property and Bering Strait ivories began showing up in exhibition catalogs (see Collins et al. 1973). A very small number of dealers and buyers have connections to materials, information and people at both ends of the market chain.

      Once in the art world, an object may be decommoditized for years in the hands of a dealer or collector, and then recycled back through the market, sometimes to the same dealers, ending up with a different collector. Provenance or history of ownership also enhances an artifact’s social and economic value, especially in the context of an art /culture system that uses “old things” from distant times and exotic places as markers of taste, wealth, and status (Bourdieu 1984; Clifford 1988: 213). The social and geographic distance between the art world and the source community tends to erase the less palatable dynamics of cultural production, such as the damage done to the archaeological record and the everyday social and economic realities faced by St. Lawrence Island’s subsistence diggers. Some of this will change as St. Lawrence Islanders begin to use the Internet, digital video, or other means to penetrate the boundaries of the art world.  

      In the case described here, the few high-end antiquities excavated on St. Lawrence Island that enter the art market are an extremely rare byproduct of the search for old ivory and a range of marketable things and not the primary cause of site destruction or commercial digging. Studies that focus on objects surfacing in the “high-end” art market may capture only the tip of a much larger, more complex market system. Attempts to mitigate the negative effects of the antiquities market on the archaeological record will have a better chance of succeeding if they take the whole picture (the entire market) into account, particularly the economic situation of those at the source and the effects policies have on these source communities.

The Internet 

      The advent of the Internet has greatly facilitated access and networking among buyers and sellers of archaeological materials from St. Lawrence Island. Today there are hundreds Internet sites where small businesses distribute old walrus ivory as a raw material or sell products fashioned from old ivory or bone. Many of these sites have web pages that attempt to explain the source of the materials and their legal status.

      The best place to find artifacts for sale on the Internet is eBay. At any given moment, eBay has around a dozen or so lots of Bering Strait archaeological objects in its web auctions (<>, “Eskimo ivory”). These range in price from US $5 to US $900, with only a few pieces listed for more than US $50 dollars. Most artifacts on eBay are undecorated ivory or bone tools, but once in a while fragments show up that are fine enough to attract amateur relic collectors who have a special interest in “Eskimo” material. Sixty percent or more of the “Eskimo artifacts” found on eBay come with a statement testifying that they were “legally excavated on St. Lawrence Island.” A number of the Bering Strait artifacts found on eBay come from collections made in the first half of the century which have surfaced from attics and found their way into the hands of contemporary curio traders.

      One major source on eBay for Bering Strait artifacts is “Big Al,” a trader from Wisconsin who spends his summers in the Bering Strait purchasing artifacts directly from diggers. An even bigger eBay presence belongs to “Bear and Raven,” who recently started selling chunks of old ivory on eBay in addition to a wide range of artifacts. This Anchorage couple started making buying trips to St. Lawrence Island for bone, old ivory and artifacts in 1996. They sell a range of archaeological goods out of a booth in the Anchorage Saturday market and through retail shops, as well as on the Internet. St. Lawrence Islanders haven’t started selling their archaeological goods directly to buyers on eBay yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Fakes, replicas, and smuggling

      Compared to other antiquities, very few Bering Strait ivories enter the market illegitimately, as fakes or smuggled goods. Infrequently, someone will carve a human figurine or some other highly valued form, use various staining techniques to make it look old, and try to pass it off as something new. This may work with a naïve buyer who arrives on the island or someone on the street in Nome, but seasoned dealers can usually spot a fake. It’s difficult to tell just how much forgery occurs, but even minor incidents are remembered and talked about for years. Villagers and dealers alike discourage fakes and forgeries because they cast doubt on the authenticity of the entire genre and can easily hurt the market. One seller on EBay was recently cited to me as a source for forgeries of St. Lawrence Island artifacts.

      No one on St. Lawrence Island currently carves replicas of the “old things” (though an ivory carver might do so by special request), partly because people worry that replicas can be artificially aged and mistaken for the real thing. On the Russian side of the Strait, members of the carving studio in Uelen have experimented with making replicas of a few special objects from state-sponsored excavations using new white ivory. The results are difficult to market due to their high cost and because of Russian export restrictions on ivory.

      A more common scenario than forgery occurs when an artifact excavated illegally from the vast state-owned lands in Alaska enters the market with claims that it came from a legal findspot or place of origin. Smuggling across the international border from Russia also occurs, especially since some very valuable Okvik- and Old Bering Sea-style artifacts and old ivory can be found on the Russian side of the strait. It is patently illegal to dig or sell archaeological objects anywhere in Russia without government permission, but desperate economic conditions in Chukotka make smuggling a tempting proposition. Since the Bering Strait reopened to travel in 1989, the opportunities for smuggling in connection with festivals, conferences, weddings, and evangelical meetings have continues to increase, and, concomitantly, so has the undocumented digging in sites along the Russian coast.

A History of Market Demand

      Artifact markets are often treated as recent troublesome phenomena. A deeper look, however, reveals that they usually have long histories of commodification that involve deep entanglements with global markets, state policies, and early practices of archaeologists. To understand the existence of and motivations for the market today, we need to understand its history.

      The history of the trade in old walrus ivory probably goes back to at least the ninth century, when traders most likely carried old ivory found buried in riverbanks in eastern Russia to Persia, where it was a luxury good believed to have magical powers (Cammann 1954: 14-20). In the late 1800s, the trading ships that supplied store goods to whaling vessels and Inuit villages in the Bering Strait always paid more for old ivory than new white tusks. Much of it went to San Francisco to be fashioned into specialty jewelry and cutlery handles. For many years, the only artifacts that interested Native diggers were pieces they could reuse to carve into beads or curios.

      The trade in archaeological “specimens,” also called “relics” to distinguish them from newly-made curios, grew out of the Victorian appetite for curios and the “salvage” collecting of the Museum Period (Cole 1985; Hollowell 2004: Chapter 6; King and Little 1986; Ray 1966: 51-2). In Alaska, by the 1890s, field collectors and tourists had already bought up most of the ethnographic goods that villagers were willing to part with (Cole 1985: 93-97). In the wake of this scarcity, people began taking objects from old sites and graves (graves in Alaska were often above ground) to sell as relics and curios (Cole 1985: 101; Krech 1989: 132). St. Lawrence Island was too remote to participate in this tourist trade or even to be much affected by the huge influx of people to northwestern Alaska for the Nome Gold Rush. Besides, the Islanders had become relatively wealthy from the trade in whale baleen, used in corsets, hoop skirts, umbrellas and buggy whips. By 1904, they were getting a whopping US $7.50 a pound from whalers and traders for the lightweight springy substance.10 But around 1910, with the invention of spring steel, automobiles, and new fashions, the global market for baleen crashed. In need of a substitute for baleen that that people could use as credit, traders began accepting archaeological curios, along with old ivory and fox skins, as payment for store goods. Other ready markets for archaeological artifacts (as well as newly made curios) included the crews of Coast Guard vessels and amateur collectors who often visited the Island on official business. 

      Around the same time, popular and scientific interest grew in “Eskimo” relics as scientific “specimens” and “windows to the past,” important clues in the puzzle of human development.11 By the 1920s, the search for the origin of peoples of the North, known as “the Eskimo problem” (Bandi 1969; Rudenko 1961), finally brought archaeologists and museum expeditions to the Bering Strait (Borden 1928; Jenness 1928; Mathiassen 1930). As soon as researchers saw the delicately engraved “specimens of a high fossil ivory culture” from Diomede and St. Lawrence Islands (Hrdlicka 1930: 174, pl. 26), they purchased what they could for museums, and, soon after, several returned with wheelbarrows and shovels. From 1927 to 1939, during a decade of seasonal excavations on St. Lawrence Island, archaeologists purchased hundreds of artifacts from villagers for ten to fifty cents each, often paying in store credit or trade goods like sugar, tea, ammunition, canned goods, and phonograph records. They supervised excavations with young diggers who received about thirty cents an hour, paid them for any artifacts they found, and let them keep unworked chunks of old ivory to carve for themselves.12

      By 1935, the market for fox furs, which became an economic mainstay after the end of the whaling period, had crashed, and all the itinerant traders had left the Bering Strait. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, through the Alaska Native Service and its village teachers, set up a program to mass-market ivory carvings made in the Bering Strait as collectibles and tourist souvenirs as a way to invigorate village economies. This program, the Alaska Native Arts Clearinghouse, encouraged St. Lawrence Islanders to mine old ivory and use it in carvings or sell it to other ivory-carving villages. During the 1940s, the Alaska Native Service also advertised archaeological artifacts as part of its sales inventory.

      These federal programs saw archaeologists who excavated on St. Lawrence Island as competitors for old ivory and artifacts, and wanted these materials to stay in the community for use as economic resources. This became more critical when the Bering Strait closed in 1948 due to the Cold War, cutting off the source of the finest old “fossil” walrus ivory (known as “Siberian” ivory) just when demand on the Alaskan tourist market for souvenir carvings was on the rise (Ray 1980: 31, 35). By 1950, the Department of the Interior added requirements to the federal excavation permits required of archaeologists, stating that all old ivory and any “broken or unneeded artifacts” must remain on St. Lawrence Island for local carvers.13 In 1962, the new state of Alaska nominated the five “type” sites in Gambell as National Historic Landmarks, along with archaeological sites on the mainland at Wales and Point Hope, even though years of digging for old ivory had already disturbed a large percentage of the Gambell sites (Giddings 1967: 132).

 Meanwhile, by the 1960s, Okvik-style figurines and Old Bering Sea-style carvings achieved recognition among museums and scholars in North America and Europe as important and distinctive examples of prehistoric art. This growing esteem, stimulated by the writings of archaeologists and art historians and the acceptance of “primitivist” aesthetics by the art world, reinscribed these archaeological “specimens” as valuable “art” (Collins 1959; Douglas and D’Harnoncourt 1941; Meldgaard 1960). The first Bering Strait ivories to surface in the art market probably came from museums that had purchased large private collections from Alaska and then had traded pieces to “primitive art” dealers, such as Julius Carlebach and J.J. Klegman in New York, or John Hewett in London to recover some of their costs or to fill gaps in their collections. Collectors like Nelson Rockefeller and Lord Robert and Lisa Sainsbury who had a penchant for “primitive” and primitivist art were among the first to usher Bering Strait archaeological ivories into the art world.

      Soon after St. Lawrence Island became private property in 1971, diggers from Savoonga, well aware of the rising value of “old things,” began to approach museums with offers to sell figurines and other high-end objects that they had recently excavated. A turning point came in 1973 when an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art—The Far North: 2000 Years of American Eskimo and Indian Art— prominently featured Bering Strait archaeological ivories in its catalog, including several of the recently excavated figurines museums had purchased from diggers (Collins 1973). That very year, two art dealers sent a “runner” to St. Lawrence Island, and he began supplying “high-end” objects to an elite cadre of “primitive art” collectors and dealers. By 1978, three art dealers were making annual buying trips to the island, and pieces had started showing up in London and New York art auctions, just in time for the art boom of the 1980s.

      Museum exhibitions and scholarly writings have played a significant, if unwitting, role in creating art value, but my research indicates that art dealers, who see it as their job to create both supply and demand, play an even more critical role. Dealers have told me that if they didn’t supply a few new and exciting pieces each year, collectors would soon lose interest in Bering Strait ivories and turn their acquisitive eye to another genre.

      Around the same time that the art world began to take note of Bering Strait ivories, the passage of international restrictions on trade in other kinds of ivory notably increased demand for “St. Lawrence Island fossil ivory” as a legal substitute. The steady growth of the Alaskan tourist trade, which utilizes archaeological materials in numerous products, has put additional pressure on these archaeological resources.

The Effects of a Legal Market

      What effects does legality have on this blatant open market for archaeological goods? First, in comparison with illicit markets, these materials enter the market through more direct networks and through fewer middlemen than their illegal counterparts, since no bribery or laundering is necessary. Second, St. Lawrence Island artifacts come to buyers with more provenience information—usually the name of the archaeological site or village where the object was found, since this doesn’t need to be kept secret. Contrasting the “drifting provenience” information attributed to with many antiquities excavated or exported under questionable legal circumstances (see Gill and Chippindale 1993). Having a known provenience or findspot adds to an object’s authenticity and consequently increases its market value. Third, the people at the source—the diggers—ask for and receive a much higher percentage of the end-value of artifacts in their negotiations with art dealers (sometimes up to 70%). This arguably makes St. Lawrence Islanders the best-paid subsistence diggers in the world. Where else would an art dealer write a US $30,000 check to a subsistence digger?14

      The case of St. Lawrence Island, where legal artifact mining is a veritable cottage industry, also provides a test of the theory, advocated by several international art lawyers and studied by UNESCO, that an unregulated global free market in already excavated cultural property would be a better deterrent to site destruction than restrictive laws, which tend to stimulate a black market (Merryman 1994; O’Keefe 1997). This argument presumes that increasing the supply of legally available goods would have the effect of reducing demand.

      But would it really work that way? It doesn’t in the market for St. Lawrence Island’s legal archaeological goods, where dealers simply continue to develop more and more niches and forms for marketing them. Diggers collect anything and everything they can sell. More artifacts are available to suit collectors at every price range. “High-end” art collectors, whose demands can never be satisfied because they are not based on utility, simply continue to compete for the most rare and unique pieces available while tourists and souvenir seekers choose among an ever wider range of archaeological curios sold in retail shops.15 Some of these trends may only become visible when one looks beyond the elite (and tiny) realm of the art market and finds that in many instances the assumption that greater supply decreases demand may well be inaccurate.

      My research also offers empirical evidence that contradicts another argument sometimes used in support of a legal trade in antiquities—that laws restricting the circulation of antiquities naturally create higher market prices. Instead, the market values of legally owned and traded antiquities, such as St. Lawrence Island ivories or American Indian artifacts from private lands, have proportionately risen just as high over the past 20 years as illicit materials such as Pre-Columbian art (Gilgan 2001).

      Nor does argument that a free trade in already-excavated materials would reduce the demand for newly excavated goods appear to hold water. In the Bering Strait, where archaeological ivories have almost no trade restrictions, this freedom of movement (which in many cases translates to the power of wealthy collectors to hold particular objects out of circulation [see Belk 1995: 62]) has certainly not slowed the digging, and the wealthiest collectors continue to prize newly excavated, never-before-seen artifacts just as much as those which have a renown history of ownership or provenance.16 The presence of a relatively lucrative legal artifact trade has also definitely incited illegal digging along the Russian coast and the smuggling of goods across the Strait.

      Due to rising ethical concerns about the relationship between the market and site destruction, in spite of the fact that the market is legal, very few museums today will purchase Bering Strait archaeological ivories, and several even refuse or restrict their donation. This has the effect, however, of keeping more objects in private hands and potentially available to recirculate in the market. Perhaps we should direct more concern to things still in the ground than to objects in the market, which have already lost so much of their contextual information. In many cases, nationalist and retentionist cultural property debates swirling around high-profile unprovenienced antiquities tend to muddy the waters, overshadowing concerns for the archaeological record with nationalist desires to control cultural symbols.

      These observations on the effects of a legal market are based on one case, and the issues raised here would benefit greatly from more comparative data. For example, to what extent do other antiquities markets have a “low-end” or a “tiered” or pyramidal structure, or to what degree might this be a phenomenon of a legal market. Mounting evidence, such as Blum’s description of the market for antiquities in Israel (Blum 2002), suggests that other markets for archaeological goods, particularly in a legal or quasi-legal environment, do encompass a broad low-end tier. It seems that people generally will gather anything that they can sell. In other places, local people ignore state-level prohibitions and recycle materials from archaeological sites for their own household use or for building construction, as in many cases they have done for centuries (Blum 2002; Cacho and Sanjuan 2000; Karoma 1996; Padgett 1989; Paredes Maury 1998; K. D. Vitelli, pers. comm.).

Subsistence Digging 

      Today, subsistence digging is an integral part of economic and social life on St. Lawrence Island, and certainly part of the heritage of the Islanders. Older diggers are regarded as community historians; young people look forward to their first big sale. In Gambell, a third-grade primer portrayed children heading out to dig, and one woman’s obituary noted, “She loved to dig for artifacts.” When I asked a group of high-schoolers how many of them had dug for artifacts, every hand went up. Everyone wants to find an object worth a new boat, a four-wheeler or a computer. Other people just need to pay their bills.

      Yet on St. Lawrence island there is a wide range of personal, sometimes conflicting, opinions about digging or selling “old things” that come from the ground. Some dig for recreation, while others say they “don’t have the patience.” Some dig to pay the bills; others regard the artifact trade as a continuation of the pattern of white traders “ripping off” their cultural artifacts. People told me stories about voices that showed them where to dig or that warned them when to stop because an object didn’t want to be found. A couple of elders blamed all the social problems in the village on “those holes people dig out there.” Almost everyone feels a sense of loss and concern that so many unique cultural objects leave the island, never to be seen again, and end up far away in unknown places and hands, yet the same people who work to establish a local museum might spend their free time digging.

      The very act of digging connects people to the land and to the past, both considered inalienable. Archaeological objects, on the other hand, are alienable “gifts from ancestors” that help St. Lawrence Islanders survive in the present—an example of “keeping while giving” (Weiner 1992) The same sentiments arise in the way subsistence diggers in Belize refer to the artifacts they find as semilla, sacred seed scattered by the ancestors to help create the future (Matsuda 1998:87-88).

      Economically, diggers on St. Lawrence Island see little difference between what they do and how others extract nonrenewable resources like diamonds or oil or make a withdrawal from an inheritance or bank account. Importantly, when opportunities for a more reliable income exist, people stop digging. A few summers ago in Savoonga, many diggers took jobs installing the running water system, and dealers complained that it was a “bad” year, because no one was digging.

      Politically, St. Lawrence Islanders are known for their independence and autonomy within the broad arenas of the Alaska Native community and the circumpolar region. They have rejected all offers from outsiders to lease, mine, or develop their natural resources, an indication of their intention to retain local control over their land and resources. Alaska Natives everywhere face intense challenges to subsistence rights from non-Native hunters, legislators, regulatory agencies, and developers. On St. Lawrence Island, the alignment of artifact digging with subsistence clearly marks it as an issue of cultural survival and self-determination. Though other indigenous groups may ascribe very different (non-economic) values to archaeological materials, they appear to support the choices of the St. Lawrence Islanders, based on principles of sovereignty and self-determination.

How Can Archaeology Proceed under these Conditions?

      Since 1973, when the art market started to escalate, the only archaeology projects on St. Lawrence Island have been construction-related monitoring, except for a 1984 survey of over fifty sites by the Smithsonian, conducted in hopes that the corporation might designate certain sites for conservation (Crowell 1985). No such plans have yet resulted. In 1987, when the National Park Service rescinded the National Historic Landmark status of the five old village sites in Gambell, based on continued reports of unabated commercial digging, no one in the village seemed to care. The status had done nothing for them, and its unclear boundaries were interfering with plans to locate the new school. Off the island, however, the action generated a lot of press about local digging practices, with several archaeologists referring to St. Lawrence Islanders as “cultural cannibals”—not exactly good public relations.17

      But perhaps a “Western” notion that venerates material culture as “heritage” is somewhat foreign to people who experience heritage as something inalienable, performed in daily practices like speaking Yupik, hunting, eating walrus meat, or drum-dancing (without tourists), in a place where people recognize their elders as the real cultural treasures, rather than an object in a museum. NAGPRA and the symbolic power it accords to material objects might be changing some of these ideas. So far many human remains have been returned and reburied on the island, but the Islanders have asked the museum in Fairbanks to store the artifacts for them because of the lack of a safe place for them on the island.

Okvik, Inc.

      In July 1999, a full-page article, written by St. Lawrence Islander and award-winning artist Susie Silook, appeared in the Nome Nugget (July 22, at 15) with the title “St. Lawrence Island ‘Digs’ Resource Management.” It pictured a young boy, shoulder-deep in a digging hole with a shovel and a caption reading “Gambell archiologist [sic].”  The article announced the formation by the island’s two Native Corporations of Okvik, Inc., a for-profit business to buy and sell archaeological goods, whose objectives were to eliminate middlemen, gain more control over prices and supply, and retain more value locally from Island resources. In 2001, Okvik started buying old ivory and bone from shareholders. Future plans include expanding to artifact and Internet sales, offering certificates of authenticity, training people in archaeology, and building a world-class museum.

      This commercial approach to archaeological resources undoubtedly makes archaeologists cringe, but, at the same time, in the long run, it addresses local concerns and has potential to benefit the community and the archaeological record. The outlook for Okvik is uncertain, however. In its first year, the business used grant funds to amass a large inventory of old ivory and bone, but had trouble finding buyers.


      This study of a legal market for archaeological goods indicates that the notion of substitutability -- the ability to transfer demand to other goods -- will play an important role in any consideration of how to remove archaeological goods from the commodity stream. In fact, a good portion of the market demand for old ivory today comes from its substitutability as a legal alternative in the face of policies that restrict the use of other kinds of ivory.

      Substitutability will be higher for goods nearer the base of the pyramid (see Figure 5.3, page ??), where, for example, alternatives to bulk raw materials and to “low-end” souvenirs created from archaeological bone or ivory can more easily be found to satisfy the tastes of the tourist market. Even at the top of the pyramid, where no substitutes exist for one-of-a-kind art objects, over-scarcity of a genre often persuades collectors to substitute other art forms to satisfy the desire for acquisition.

      St. Lawrence Islanders have, for now, made a conscious decision to prioritize the economic value of their unique cultural resources over their value as archaeological “heritage.” Artifact diggers are engaged and entangled in a global market that exploits cultural resources because it is one of the best economic options available. People on the island, as elsewhere in Alaska and all over the world, are likely to continue digging as long as a market for their archaeological goods exists, and until they have a viable economic substitute.

How Can Archaeology Proceed?

      So, how can archaeology proceed under these conditions?

      It can’t, if local people are forced to choose between selling excavated materials and doing scientific archaeology. It can’t, if archaeologists wait until the artifact market collapses, or are unwilling to make some ethical compromises. Compromises which, in this case, would involve working in a community where commercial digging is openly sanctioned, and recognizing the corporation’s legal right to sell artifacts after study (whether this happens or not). These kinds of dilemmas dare us to rethink whether archaeology is really about the objects or the knowledge.

      This was brought home to me during my four seasons working as crew chief on excavations directed by Roger Harritt of the University of Alaska in the Bering Strait village of Wales, northwestern-most point of the North American continent and once an important center for intercontinental trade. I signed on to the project because of my interest in the Wales Native Corporation’s support of a scientific excavation in the midst of a small village where residents also openly dug for the market. The coexistence of diggers and archaeologists, awkward at times, fostered mutual respect and facilitated the exchange of all kinds of knowledge and understanding. This doesn’t mean that archaeologists converted anyone. On the weekend our local crewmembers sometimes went digging or made a few dollars driving a visiting dealer around. The artifacts, and the piles of seal bones, we excavated belong to Native corporation. Though the project director has presented several curation options, the decision is theirs. {Figure 5.9 near here}

      On St. Lawrence Island, things would be tougher because of the ubiquitous and high-stakes role subsistence digging plays in the community, but if -- I should say when -- the Native corporation decides to set aside a site for scientific excavation, should archaeologists walk away, or should they work with local authorities to negotiate terms of stewardship and research that benefit both the community and the archaeological record?


      Portions of this manuscript appeared in Zimmer (2003), “When Archaeological Artifacts Dilemmas Faced by Native Villages of Alaska’s Bering Strait,” in Indigenous People and Archaeology, edited by Trevor Peck, Evelyn Siegfried and Gerald A, Oetelaar, pp. 298-312, and published by the Archaeological Association of the University of Calgary. Funding for this research has come from the Arctic Social Science Program of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, the Phillips Fund for Native American Research of the American Philosophical Society, the Jacobs Research Fund of the Whatcom Museum, and, at Indiana University, and the Department of Anthropology’s David K. Skomp Fund and the Research and University Graduate School. I also want to thank the people of St. Lawrence Island and Wales, Alaska, and the many others who have assisted and encouraged this work.


1. Staley (1993: 348) and Matsuda (1998: 96) define a subsistence digger as a person who uses the proceeds from artifact digging to support a subsistence lifestyle.

2. Proposal for Withdrawal of National Historic Landmark Designation, signed by Edwin Bearss (Chief Historian) and Bennie Keel (Assistant Director, Archeology) of the National Park Service, 5 February 1987; Files on “Gambell Sites,” National Park Service, Alaska Region Office, Anchorage.

3. For other discussions of subsistence digging on St. Lawrence Island, see Scott (1984) and Staley (1993).

4. I refer to the Wales Native Corporation, which, since the late 1970s, has excluded shareholders from digging on the Kurigitavik mound site, next to the present-day village.

5. This concept comes from Raymonde Moulin (1987: 139-143), who portrayed the French art market in a similar pyramidal fashion, with a broad base represented by large quantities of “junk art” consumed by the masses and one-of-a-kind goods consumed by an elite few at the pinnacle.

6. Information about restrictions on the import of these materials for several countries can be found in “A Custom’s Guide to Alaska Native Arts,” website of the Alaska Division of Community Advocacy, Department of Community and Economic Development. <> (accessed 10 March 2004).

7. This out-sourcing of archaeological bone and ivory is part of a larger transnational cultural marketing phenomenon. Workshops in Bali also carve wooden replicas of Northwest Coast masks, rattles and totems, among other things (Melzer 1995).

8. Dealers have cultivated many strategies for manipulating auctions to their advantage. Appadurai (1986: 21) briefly discusses art auctions as “tournaments of value,” and Geismar (2001) looks in depth at the malleability of constructions of price and provenance in tribal art auctions.

9. This price was “set” in 1995 at Christie’s for an Okvik-style figurine from St. Lawrence Island that had been on long-term loan to the Detroit Institute of Art [Christie’s 1995]. It includes the commission fee of the auction house

10. Journal of E. O. Campbell, teacher of the Government School in Gambell from 1902 to 1905, p. 91; M/F 148: Journals from St. Lawrence Island, Volume II; Archives of Alaska and Polar Regions, Rasmusen Library, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

11. During the early part of the twentieth century, many people saw “the Eskimo” as a cultural relic that had survived outside of civilization whose existence raised questions about possible relationships with “stone age” cultures of Western Europe (see de Laguna 1932, 1933).

12. Otto Geist papers, Sections V (St. Lawrence Island Papers) and VII (Notebooks), Archives of Alaska and Polar Regions, Rasmusen Library, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

13. These conditions are outlined in the letter of Assistant Secretary of the Interior William Warne to University of Alaska President Moore, 16 May 1950 (Papers of the Director’s Office, F. G. Rainey, Box 4/5, Arctic: Bering Straits Expedition, University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, Philadelphia).

14. In 1999, a New York dealer paid a Savoonga digger this much for a 3-inch Okvik-style ivory head. In 2001, another digger received considerably more for an extraordinary ivory winged object and matching harpoon foreshaft.

15. Belk (1995) discusses various motivations behind acts of collecting, and Plattner (1998) examines some of the economic paradoxes that guide fine art collecting.

16. Provenience information about where and how an object was found and an illustrious provenance or history of ownership both serve to increase market value; the first because it validates an object’s authenticity, and the second because a renown provenance increases the social capital associated with an object.

17. For references by archaeologists to digging on St. Lawrence Island as “cultural cannibalism,” see Knecht in Perala 1989: G7; Morton in Eppenbach 1991: D6; Yesner 1989. For a counter-interpretation, see Crowell 1985: 26.


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