Alaska Native Artist Spotlight: Bailey McCallson (Yup'ik)
About the Author: Mary Goddard is Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, Eagle/Brown Bear of Klukwan and grew up in Yakutat. She resides in Sitka with her husband and son, creating Tlingit formline designs for her original carved jewelry, public art installations, and more. She runs a film company and an Indigenous cooking blog. Mary has served as Southeast Alaska’s Regional Catalyst for Regenerative Tourism as well continuing to serve on the board of the American Indian and Alaska Native Tourism Association.
“Buying jewelry and sculptures made from Walrus ivory is sustainable. Your purchase supports our communities and ensures the continuation of our culture.” Bailey McCallson, a Yup’ik ivory artist, shares this with absolute certainty.
Bailey is from Bethel, a Southwestern village on the Kuskokwim River, roughly 400 miles west of Anchorage. The majority of Bethel’s nearly 6,000 residents are Alaska Native. It is home to the Kuskokwim 300 Dog Sled Race and the Camai Yup'ik Dance Festival.
As an ivory artist, Bailey understands that oftentimes visitors are confused by ivory items for sale when they are visiting Alaska. This is due to the bans on elephant ivory. Walrus Ivory is protected through the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is legal only for Alaska Natives to hunt walrus and to utilize their tusks. Once the ivory is crafted into artwork such as sculptures or jewelry can it be purchased by non-Alaska Natives.
Bailey’s Yup’ik culture relies heavily on the sustenance of walrus. “We use everything. Nothing goes to waste, down to the whiskers and even the lining of the walrus stomach.” Unfortunately ivory got a bad rap because of elephant poaching and the bans on ivory. However, for Yup’iks, walrus hunting is not trophy hunting.
Although Bailey is a hunter, he purchases ivory from other Alaska Native hunters. “I like supporting them. No one asks for much for the ivory, just enough to fill their gas tank so they can hunt again.” For Bailey, carving ivory, like his ancestors did, connects him to his culture. He finds himself researching his culture, listening intently to shared Yup’ik stories and songs from elders, hungry to learn more about his Yup’ik heritage. “It’s exciting! I can learn these stories and carve them into ivory sculptures. This is my way of carrying on our traditions. It's a way for me to connect to my identity.”
Bailey is an enthusiastic artist. His eyes light up when he talks about ivory. He laughs a lot, and tells me it hasn’t always been that way for him. Growing up in a rural, flat and often cold village in Western Alaska had its struggles.
While we are talking, Bailey’s dad walks in. He is a gregarious man, big voice and tall. He clearly is proud of his son. “When Bailey was 8 years old he was out camping in the Tundra. By himself!” he laughs in amazement. “It was below zero and that didn’t bother Bailey at all. He told me, ‘Dad, I will be fine. I have my sleeping bag and everything I need.’ And he went camping, all by himself.” He shakes his head, and then as quickly as he entered the workshop, Bailey’s father is off.
Bailey smiles and lets me know, nothing has changed. He still loves the outdoors. He has no problem camping, hiking, boating, and hunting; no matter the weather. Bethel’s subarctic climate means long winters and short summers. Temperatures in Bethel stay in the single digits in winter and rarely get warmer than 60 degrees in the summer months.
“If you don’t stay busy and occupied, you can easily get depressed. I have made up my mind to be positive. To chase after my dreams.” Bailey could easily be a motivational speaker. Young, but with years of wisdom. He is someone you want to keep listening to. He is real and genuine and full of curiosity for life. He seems to be the type of person with no end to energy, which is funny to me because he shares with us a Yup'ik word; Tuaingunrituq, which means there is no end. (I immediately connect this word to Bailey, wondering how his energy never ends!) He connects this to the ivory. Bailey shares that when you respect an animal by not wasting any of it, this is keeping the story alive for the animal, so that it too can have no end. The story goes on. Tuaingunrituq.
Bailey switches to talk about flying and his goals of becoming a commercial pilot. His eyes light up again. I can tell, carving ivory and flying airplanes, they are equal loves, the source of Bailey’s energy. He circles back around to the challenges of living in Bethel, explaining that flying has allowed him a new perspective. Having a bird's eye view, he can witness how big and vast Alaska actually is. His eyes are open to opportunities and the beauty of this place. He shares that both flying and being connected to his culture keep him grounded. He sees the value of passing on the art of ivory carving to Yup’ik youth. “I want to teach this to others. I want our youth to succeed.”
Bailey teaches me, teaches us, step by step how he takes a walrus tusk and cuts it into workable chunks. He shows how he sketches on the ivory, how he glues, sands and files the ivory until it is recognizable as a piece of jewelry. The process takes a couple of hours. Self-taught and taking inspiration by carvings done by other artists, Bailey has been creating jewelry in his shop for four years.
We turn off the camera and lights and begin packing up, our time with Bailey is about to come to an end. Bailey gives the ivory earrings a slight polish and hands them to me. As a gift. They are beautiful, smooth to the touch, a creamy white and are in the shape of the infinite symbol. I can’t help but smile.
Tuaingunrituqv. (There is no end)
I know Bailey’s story will not end, it is and will be carried on through his jewelry, his ivory art.
Want to learn more about Bailey? Watch the artist spotlight video of Bailey below. Shop for jewelry made by Bailey at Alaska gift shops or from his Instagram store, @tuskworthy_premiums.
New! Alaska Native Culture Guide
Immerse yourself in Alaska Native heritage and learn how to experience the living culture of the state's Indigenous peoples.