The e-commerce site Etsy said last week it will no longer allow Alaska Natives to sell crafts made with ivory or parts from threatened or endangered animals, despite urging from a U.S. senator and a cultural preservation group to change its policy.
But the company backed down in one area: A blanket approach that affected Native artists in Southeast Alaska, where the northern sea otter is not listed as threatened like its Southwest Alaska cousin.
The dispute between Alaskans and the New York City-based company is rooted in certain federal exemptions for Alaska Natives.
Generally speaking, Alaska Native tribal members can hunt animals for subsistence that are listed under the Endangered Species Act, said Crystal Leonetti, Alaska Native affairs specialist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In general, they can also legally turn body parts from the animals into art for sale.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, in a letter to Etsy chief executive Josh Silverman, said Etsy's policy "discriminates" against Alaska Natives and fails to recognize they "are explicitly authorized under federal laws … to work with and sell walrus ivory, whale tooth and bone, and other non-elephant ivory," Sullivan's letter says.
Alaska Natives can also legally sell crafts made from sea otter parts and other "sustainably harvested" animals, Sullivan said in the letter, dated Feb. 2.
Walruses, with their tusk ivory, are not listed under the act. Alaska Natives living in coastal areas can hunt them and other marine mammals for subsistence, as spelled out in the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They can legally make walrus ivory into art.
Etsy said in an email to a reporter Wednesday that the company strives to be "an ivory- and endangered-species free" global marketplace.
"With increased global regulation surrounding ivory and animal products, we can no longer accommodate such products produced by Native Alaskans in our marketplace," said the email, attributed to "an Etsy spokesperson."
The company's view is based on "erroneous assumptions" that the sales by Native artists are illegal, said a letter to Silverman from Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau.
"Alaska Native artists have contacted us this week expressing alarm that their Etsy products were banned because they used" ivory or marine mammal parts in their work, said Worl's letter, sent Wednesday.
As of Friday, Etsy had not replied to Sullivan's or Worl's letter, officials said.
Alaska Native artist Marcus Gho, from Juneau, said Etsy on Tuesday delisted about six items from his account. The items were made with fur from sea otters he had hunted in Southeast Alaska. They included fur-trimmed Christmas stockings.
Etsy had mistakenly believed the Southeast Alaska population of northern sea otters was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, Gho said.
He said Etsy had not deactivated his account, so he could still sell other items.
Gho, whose family for generation has sold crafts made from marine mammal parts, told an Etsy representative by email that the Southeast Alaska sea otters are not listed under the act, he said.
Early in the week, the representative had said Etsy was not changing its decision. Gho said he felt like the company was "targeting" Alaska Natives and didn't care about their concerns.
Etsy, in an email to a reporter Wednesday who raised the Southeast sea otter distinction, said the company will not "accommodate the many nuances of local laws and exceptions of jurisdictions all over the world."
But on Thursday, Etsy emailed Gho again, saying his items might in fact comply with their policy, if he clearly disclosed the Southeast otters aren't threatened, according to Gho. By Saturday, Etsy had relisted his otter-fur crafts.
Gho said he appreciated Etsy's willingness to listen to facts and make a rational decision.
Etsy's reconsideration of that issue was a good first step, said Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman with Sullivan's office.
Etsy's approach toward Alaska Native art could have harmful repercussions, he said. Tourists might become confused and shy away from buying Native crafts made with walrus ivory, for example, mistakenly thinking they're illegal.
"Our goal is to begin engagement in the conservation," Shuckerow said. "Educating people here and in Alaska is a big priority, because some people may not not know the impact their decisions can have."