In the early 1990s an Alaskan trader brought fossilized walrus teeth (and some larger fossilized walrus tusks) to Zuni. The small teeth, measuring less than 2″, became a popular material for the Laate Clan of carvers.
Fossilized walrus teeth are amenable to detailed carving using fine hand-made drill bits, particularly those fashioned by Pernell and Maxx Laate. The brothers used these teeth to experiment with new images and to hone carving skills. They also used these materials to teach their nephews (Estaban and Ruben Najera, Derrick and Elton Kamassee, Louis Malie, Florentino Martinez ) and some close friends to carve intricate pieces. The term ‘maquette’ is apropos. “It refers to a small scale model used by sculptors. The maquette size is used to test shapes and ideas and to also visualize without much cost and effort that later serves to allow larger pieces in different materials to be made”.
Fossilized walrus teeth vary in color – from pale white or creamy to reddish hues and also to some dark hues as well, making for interesting vibrant textures. Because of this feature, all highlighting on the carvings is natural. There is no artificial accenting or ‘torching’, as is often seen on elk antler fetishes.
The nephews feverishly worked on their maquettes, checking with Pernell and Maxx for advice and guidance. One might say they ’cut their teeth’ using fossilized walrus teeth, as did Pernell and Maxx The pieces shown here represent the skill of this innovative clan of carvers.
The prices for these carvings were high, given the cost of the material and the time spent on fine detail and varied imagery.
During the same time period, Maxx made a number of even smaller carvings, using branch coral. These were not made for necklaces but as stand-alone carvings. They require close examination to realize how deftly he carved the coral. We have only a few pieces left from this phase of Maxx’s experimentation.
Although small, their carvings were not made to be used as stringing fetishes (for necklaces). They were small ‘table-top’ carvings (and they stood on a flat surface). Eddington Hannaweekee, however, did use fossilized walrus teeth to craft exquisite, multi-strand fetish necklaces. His carvings were smaller and encompassed a wide range of images and unique designs, were free-form and not made to ’stand’. Lena Boone also made fetish necklaces using fossilized walrus teeth.