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Inupiat harpoon thrower during a bowhead whale hunt

by Greg Klupar

A month ago

Woolly mammoth tusk

Mammoth ivory isn’t always much to look at.

“If you saw it you’d say nothing’s there,” said Kurt Tripp, who inherited the Fairbanks family business, Ivory Jacks, along with his brother, Jack Tripp, who runs the retail arm Mt. Juneau Trading Post, in Juneau.

“It’s dirty. It’s cracked. Because it’s rather unstable, people shied away from it as a material,” he added. “Nobody used it.”

Tripp’s interest in mammoth tusks started early in life. His grandfather, Don Peterson, owned a sternwheel paddleboat that he used to take on the Chena River in Fairbanks, which was abundant with Mammoth tusks. Young Tripp liked to play among the immense tusks and bones his grandfather collected.

For Tripp, growing up in Fairbanks meant he was almost destined to work for himself. He loved the freedom of being a kid in the area, and he loved that there were “no boundaries.” Boundaries are something that Tripp can’t abide.

“It was wonderful growing up in Fairbanks,” he said. “We were free to run. We’d leave home in the morning and the only reason we’d go home is if we were hungry. There were tons and tons of forest, the Chena River ran through it, and we’d go swimming in the gravel pits or shag balls for the Fairbanks Goldpanners, a local minor league baseball team.”

“Shortly after I discovered mammoth tusks I was introduced to Native carvings and scrimshaw.”

Scrimshaw is the name given to carvings and engravings on whale bone, shells and other materials such as fossilized walrus tusks. The tusks must be cured, or dried and stabilized, typically for months or years in a bone yard, before they can be carved.

Balleen basket

“Alaska has some of the most beautiful Native designs and carvings you’ll find anywhere,” says Tripp, who has spent his life appreciating the art indigenous groups create using materials from their surroundings and helping promote their artform to galleries and buyers (make sure to look for the Silver Hand or Made In Alaska stickers as identifiers.)

Here is a list of the finest native art galleries in SE Alaska:

(1) Lynch & Kennedy in Skagway, owned and operated by Rosemary Libert

(2) Mt. Juneau Trading Post in Juneau, owned and operated by Jack Tripp

His search for the finest Native pieces has taken him to some remote spots in Alaska, including St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, just south of the Bering Strait, where the best artists congregate to sell their pieces.

“Every year I go to the villages in St. Lawrence Island to look for materials and carvings,” he said. “One time me and my buddy George Schab, since deceased, were invited to dinner by a local guy named Charles Slwooko. He said we were having clams. We ate them and he asked how we liked them. We said they were good.

“He told us they were ‘twice eaten clams.’ They had taken the clams from the stomach of a walrus they had killed. They were very tender, anyway.”

The Inupiat and St. Lawrence Island Yu’pik people, known as the “real people,” are subsistence hunting and gathering societies whose art includes everything from their world around them from baleen baskets woven from the mouth of the bowhead whale, which they hunt, to dolls for kids made from sealskin.

Bowhead whale beached after whale hunt

But for Tripp, he has the dream job.

“I rapidly discovered that I don’t want to work for anybody else,” he said, although he worked on the Alaska Pipeline as a Teamster, or truck driver, to help fund his first business. “I’m a left-brained creative person. I’m not a real conformist. I think outside the box. I like to say I’m not that smart but I work ten times harder than the next guy.

“I enjoy the creativity of what I do. I really enjoy the relationships I’ve developed with Yup’ik artists over the years whose art I get to share with the world – it’s one of the best jobs I could have imagined.”

Kurt Tripp and family, owner of Ivory Jacks