Commerce Committee Advances Sullivan’s Bill to Protect Alaska Native Craftsmen

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, thanked his committee colleagues today for advancing the Empowering Rural Economies Through Alaska Native Sustainable Arts and Handicrafts Act, Sullivan’s bill to preempt states from banning walrus ivory, whale bone, and other marine mammal products that have been legally carved by Alaska Natives under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Additionally, the bill preempts states from issuing bans on fossilized ivory products, including from walrus and extinct mammoths.

“In the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Congress recognized the cultural, subsistence and economic importance of allowing Alaska Natives to harvest and use marine mammal parts in a non-wasteful manner, but state bans have threatened Alaska Native craftsmen, some of whom are living in already economically-challenged rural areas,” said Senator Sullivan. “We need to continue to combat poaching and black markets for elephant ivory, but we must do so while honoring and protecting Alaska Natives’ ability to carry on their heritage, as they have for thousands of years, and access economic opportunities through selling authentic handicrafts. I thank my colleagues who stood with our Alaska Native peoples today, and I look forward to working with my other colleagues to address their concerns and pass this legislation in the full Senate.”

“Alaska Natives deserve to have our way of life protected, and that includes the legal harvesting of marine mammals that have sustained our people for thousands of years,” said Melanie Bahnke, President and CEO of Kawerak, Inc. “We continue to practice a subsistence way of life in the Arctic and, as our ancestors did before us, we do not waste any parts of a harvested animal, including the bones and the ivory for tools, art, and ceremony. On behalf of the many indigenous people from the Bering Strait Region of Alaska, we are grateful to the members of Congress who are willing to protect our way of life, our cultures, and our traditional practices. Thank you to Senator Sullivan for championing this bill and to those on the Commerce Committee who stood with Alaska Natives and voted ‘yes’ on this bill, and thank you to the many individuals, Tribes, and entities who continue to advocate for its passage by Congress.”

In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a regulation banning most commercial and non-commercial trade in raw and worked ivory of African elephants following a global decrease in elephant populations due to illegal poaching. Many states have since enacted broader bans on ivory sales that generally include walrus, mammoth, and fossilized ivory used by Alaska Natives and Alaskans to produce artistic carvings, clothing, or authentic handiworks.

While the state ivory bans are designed to combat the trade in illegal elephant ivory, they have led to confusion among consumers regarding other legal ivory products, resulting in decreased demand for legal Alaska Native handicrafts and mammoth ivory carvings.

Under current law and Sullivan’s proposed legislation, the Secretary of the Interior is authorized to apply restrictions on the taking of particular species in the event the population of a marine mammal is deemed to be depleted. However, the secretary is required to demonstrate such regulations are supported by substantial evidence, and targeted to specific species, geographical regions, and seasons.

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