As far as materials we display in the museum go, few are as controversial as ivory. And it’s no wonder: the most well-known source of ivory is elephant tusks, whose trade severely effected their population. At MIA, we have many ivory pieces on display and often get questions about how it was obtained, where it was obtained and why it was used at all. These are all good questions and ones I want to address.
Ivory in the Arctic generally comes from one of two sources: walrus or narwhal tusks. The word “tusks,” though, is misleading: what we call tusks are actually overgrown incisor teeth. Normally a male narwhal’s upper left incisor tooth begins to protrude (female narwhal generally don’t have a tusk), while both upper incisor teeth on a walrus do the same. Very rarely, both of a narwhal’s upper incisor teeth will protrude, too. The narwhal’s tusk is also the subject of a traditional Inuit legend.
Inuit and their ancestors have hunted walrus and narwhal for centuries in order to survive. Both species are a food source for Inuit and were relied on for the raw materials to make objects like knives and clothing. The local need to hunt these animals continues to this day, an issue highlighted by the recent restrictions of legal export of narwhal tusks from 17 Arctic communities in Nunavut. International trade in ivory is severely restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Speciesof Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The ivory pieces in the museum range from small Thule objects like the comb featured above to intricately carved tusks incorporated into stone sculptures, like those used by Bart Hanna (1948 – ) from Iglulik. Using these pieces of ivory is a way for Inuit artists to essentially recycle: once the animal has been used for its primary purpose, food, the leftover ivory is also utilized.
Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Educational Officer