Editor’s note: Cassils is a gender non-conforming trans-masculine visual artist. Cassils uses plural gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, their) and asks that journalists do likewise when referring to them. This plurality reflects through language the position Cassils occupies as an artist. For more about gender non-conforming issues, go to: glad.org/reference/transgender
Powerful art does not need to be explained, though for the uninitiated, sometimes it helps.
Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Cassils thrives on the power of art. The artist (who prefers to be referred to in plural, gender-neutral pronouns) launched their latest exhibit, Cassils: The Phantom Revenant—now on display at the Bemis Center— Feb. 2 with a thrilling live performance called Becoming An Image.
Cassils’ performance involved the transgender, body-building artist attacking a 2,000-pound block of clay using only their body, in complete darkness, with the occasional flash of a camera that illuminated both artist and object, burning the images into viewers retinas.
It was a blend of performance, photography, and sculpture. “I use all parts of my body—my fists, my knees, my elbows,” Cassils says. “I beat this clay to the best of my ability, blind, until I’m basically compromising my ability to hit it properly.”
At the performance, the only sounds were those of Cassils’ labored breathing, as the artist kicked, punched, and even jumped on the earthy clay, accompanied by the click of the camera as the photographer blindly tried to capture the “full-blown attack.”
Becoming An Image was originally conceived of and executed for ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, the oldest existing LGBT organization in the United States, which also happens to house one of the largest repositories of LGBT materials in the world.
“I was asked to make a piece in relationship to the missing gender-queer and trans representation in that archive, because like many archives in museums, it’s filled with the work of, in this case, dead, gay white guys. So rather than making an artwork that spoke to the one or two subjectivities that perhaps matched this description in the archives, I decided to make a piece about the troubling mechanisms of what makes it into the historical canon and what doesn’t.”
Cassils’ Powers That Be installation—on display through April 29—presents a six-channel video that is a simulation of violence, a staged fight that could be taking place between two, three, four, or five people. But in this fight, Cassils plays the role of both victim and perpetrator. “If you have two people doing stage combat, it looks really realistic, but if you take one person out, and the other person’s doing it well, it really looks as if they’re fighting a ghost, or a force.”
Cassils says “Any work is about responding to the socio-political circumstances that we’re living in … Art doesn’t change things like laws do, but it generates discussion.”
This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.
A wilderness surrounds the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Medano Creek (in Great Sand Dunes National Park) is fed by snowmelt from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
We’re creatures of habit. We live and breathe routine, and for the most part, we are comfortable in our ways. We’re busy. We think ahead. We worry. We wonder. We drive to work and run errands. Once in a while, however, we stop for a moment and realize that we need a break.
What happens when we decide to escape from routine? If only for two weeks? The possibilities are infinite. Omaha Magazine’s creative director, Bill Sitzmann, and his family of four know this firsthand. Sitzmann, his wife, and their two kids (ages 5 and 9) packed up their Subaru Outback in early June 2016 and hit the road with no specific destination in mind, rather a region: the Great American Southwest.
“We knew when we needed to leave and we knew when we needed to be back,” Sitzmann says. “My dad lives in Tucson, so we knew we wanted to go there and see him. But other than that, we just picked the general areas we wanted to hit.”
The Sitzmann family rolled out of Omaha, looking forward to the two-week camping adventure ahead. Sitzmann says that the trip was exciting from a parental standpoint because, while he was accustomed to teaching his kids things that he already knew, they were headed into uncharted territory for the whole family.
“For all four of us to experience it for the first time, all at the same time, was pretty cool,” Sitzmann says, recalling their two weeks of close quarters on the road.
Driving from Omaha, their stops ranged from Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado to the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
They discovered beautiful, lightly populated trails and campsites by venturing off the beaten path. The family decided to stop by the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado, chosen by Sitzmann on a whim, based solely on pictures that he’d seen of the place.
Surrounded by trees with no spectacular view in sight, the drive into the park had them questioning their sanity. But the side trip turned out to be one of the more rewarding outdoor destinations for the family when they walked along a trail at sunset and stumbled upon a massive canyon nearly 100 yards away from their campsite. As they looked around, they realized that they had the hidden gem all to themselves. Sitzmann made a point to wake up at sunrise the next morning for coffee with a view.
They hit a total of 10 national parks over the course of their 3,200-mile journey across the rugged Southwest of the United States. The region is home to countless national parks, along with myriad monuments and historic sites, offering unlimited variations to the ultimate family road trip.
In the Southwest, several National Parks are located in close enough proximity that more than one could be visited in a single day. The natural formations of the land might be close in location, but tend to differ greatly when it comes to their visual appeal.
In Utah, the impressive forest of tall, narrow eroded rock at Bryce Canyon National Park is less than 90 minutes from Zion National Park—where massive cliffs, gaping canyons, sparkling streams, and waterfalls can be seen. Those two parks alone could make a day of adventure (or a week of discovery) for visitors.
“I think it’s important to have that long-term period with your family,” Sitzmann says. “Most of us, we talk about providing for our family—and that’s what we think our main job is. You teach [your kids] that you can provide and work hard, but there are other things in life that we miss and that we kind of lose touch with over the years.”
The family was able to disconnect from social media, spend the evenings under the stars, and chase the sunrise each morning.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Not every moment was saturated with unexpected beauty. One night, they couldn’t find an open campground, so they camped directly under a fluorescent light in an RV park. But that was a learning experience, in its own way.
Sitzmann’s son turned 9 on the road and received a pocketknife from his father as a right of passage into the world of responsibility.
Road trips to the Southwest have occupied a pivotal point in the lives of many. For my own family, the Southwest was the basis for two unforgettable road trips. The first journey, my parents took in their 20s before having kids. The second, they undertook with seven children in tow (four years ago).
Unlike the Sitzmanns, the Smith crew rolled out of Omaha in 15-passenger rental van. Our approach to the itinerary was more regimented and less laissez faire. We hit the road with all lodging booked. While the Sitzmanns cooked on campfires all along the way, we munched on endless amounts of processed snacks packed into the van.
My dad drove, my mom blogged, and the seven of us kids—ages 5 to 19—bonded in the backseats singing songs, playing games, and marveling at the changing colors and landscapes that we had never seen before.
Over the course of the 3,259 miles that we drove, we spent 10 days in five different states. We grew closer as we conquered new territories. We mastered packing and unpacking the car in a matter of minutes; white-water rafted in Colorado; played cards by the campfire at night in Utah; and came up with silly inside jokes that we remember today.
While there are countless ways to make a road trip through the Southwest, the adventure is unlike any other. Experiencing the purity and the simplicity of the landscape, joined by the people you love, is an indescribable experience. It is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often.
My parents had wanted to go on family road trip to the Southwest ever since their own trip some 20 years prior. It was a right of passage for our family as a unit, because my eldest sister had just graduated high school and the youngest was about to start kindergarten.
As we begin graduating from college, these sorts of road trips will become increasingly difficult to coordinate. So, to seize the moment, we are now in the midst of planning another massive family road trip.
The Smith Family’s Southwest Itinerary (10 days):
From Omaha, we drove through Colorado and landed in Utah where we visited: Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park. We then continued to head south where we hit Arizona and visited the Grand Canyon National Park and Lake Powell. We headed back up north where we made an impulsive stop at the Four Corners, then carried onto Mesa Verde National Park and the city of Durango in Colorado. Then, we returned to Omaha.
The Sitzmann Family’s Southwest Itinerary (14 days):
From Omaha, they headed to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. From there, they went to New Mexico where they visited Carson National Forest and White Sands National Monument. They continued onward to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and Antelope Canyon in Arizona, and then went back up to Utah to hit Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. The family made their way back through Colorado, where they visited the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park before they returned to Omaha.
Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado
This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.
The buried remains of Ice Age mammoths hold secrets to the story of climate change and the rise of mankind.
Mammoths vanished from Earth some 11,000 years ago at the end of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, but their story grows increasingly significant today with contemporary discussions of global warming and the alarming rate of wildlife species extinctions worldwide.
As the United States and China crack down on legal channels for buying and selling African elephant ivory— due to a quirk of international treaty regulations—Chinese ivory traders have begun turning to tusks from prehistoric woolly mammoths.
Traditional Chinese ivory craftsmanship has a history dating back thousands of years. Ironically, the continuation of the ancient Chinese art form could become dependent on supplies of ivory from extinct woolly mammoths.
Mammoths are the ancient relatives of modern elephants. Although their closest living relative is the Asian elephant, they also share the biological family “Elephantidae” with African elephants. Paleontologists have excavated their long-nosed (i.e., proboscidean) kin on nearly every continent, except for Antarctica and Australia.
Nebraska has an especially rich history of elephants. In fact, the mammoth is Nebraska’s official state fossil. Mammoths or mastodons have been uncovered in all but three of Nebraska’s 93 counties (every one except Grant, Arthur, and Wayne counties).
“Our elephants first come over about 14 million years ago into North America, and Nebraska is probably the only place in the country where you can find a complete sequence until their demise in the late Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. Nebraska is probably one of the few places where you can document the entire history of the Proboscidea in North America,” says George Corner, collection manager at Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.
Nebraska’s State Fossil
Mammoths were mythical creatures to the young Corner. As a kid growing up in rural Blue Hill, his family would travel to the capital every year for the state basketball tournament. Across from the Nebraska Coliseum (the tournament’s home prior to the Devaney Center’s construction) was Morrill Hall.
He would resort to temper tantrums if his father wouldn’t let him “go look at the elephants” during their Lincoln visits, Corner says with a laugh.
The paleontologist (who turned 69 in January) stands in the middle of “Elephant Hall,” where gigantic specimens of the state’s rich proboscidean history loom overhead. He has spent 47 years working for the museum—starting with field studies as an undergraduate student of geology, and with the museum’s highway salvage project during and after his master’s in geology.
Corner, who jokes about being as old as the creatures on display, credits the bulk of the collection to Erwin H. Barbour. In 1891, the Ohio-raised Barbour came to the University of Nebraska to head its geology department. Within a year of landing in Lincoln, Barbour had taken charge of curating the museum; he served as its director for roughly 50 years.
The crown jewel of the museum’s Elephant Hall goes by the nickname Archie. That’s short for Archidiskodon imperator maibeni. Archie is a Columbian mammoth (a southern branch of the mammoth genus, which may have lacked the shaggy-coat of its northern woolly mammoth relatives). Both Columbian and woolly mammoths once roamed the grasslands of Nebraska.
“We like to claim that Archie is the largest mounted mammoth in the world, but I’ll show you one thing that Barbour did,” Corner says. “Look at his toes. He’s mounted on his tippy-toes. Now, you can’t tell me that an elephant of that size could stand on his tippy-toes.” (Archie would have likely weighed in the realm of 8,400 kilograms, the size of a large bull African elephant plus 20 percent.) “But Barbour wanted as much height as possible.”
Archie stands in a semi-circle of proboscidean specimens that stretch from prehistoric non-elephants into modern-day varieties—from long-jawed mastodons, to stegomastodons, to mastodons, to the elephant family: mammoths (though a woolly mammoth is not on display at the museum) and culminating in modern Asian and African elephants.
“Some of these critters came over to North America as they were, so there wasn’t a lot of evolution in place. Most of the evolution probably took place in the Old World and then migrated over in the late Miocene,” Corner says, explaining how elephants traveled to Nebraska via the Bering land bridge that once linked northeastern Russia to Alaska.
Asian and African elephants have only recently ventured into Nebraska with help from modern man.
The museum’s Asian elephant specimens came from two that died when a Campbell Brothers Circus train caught fire at Pawnee City in 1904 (only to be excavated by Barbour’s graduate student two years later). The museum’s African elephants on display include the skeleton of an African elephant that had died in a German zoo—acquired before the construction of Morrill Hall in 1927—and taxidermy mounts shot during a 1920s safari by Adam Breede, the publisher of the Hastings Tribune (who contributed most of the museum’s collection of African taxidermy).
“In Nebraska, mammoths became extinct along with 85 percent of all animals larger than the size of a jackrabbit 10-12,000 years ago. And I can’t tell you why,” Corner says, who speculates that climate change, disease, maybe an asteroid, or any combination of such factors, could have driven Nebraska’s mammoths to extinction at approximately the same time that mammoths went extinct worldwide.
Early humans lived alongside mammoths in the landscape that would eventually become the state of Nebraska. But Corner doubts that mankind could have been entirely responsible for the demise of mammoths: “Early Nebraskans witnessed the extinction of these animals, and they were opportunists; they hunted them—but I do not think they were the final cause.”
On remote islands, isolated pockets of woolly mammoths lingered past the species’ mass die-off. The last known living woolly mammoths went extinct on Wrangel Island (a secluded Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 3,700 years ago.
Why did mammoths go extinct? “That’s the big question in paleontology,” Corner says. “Go to the African savannah—we had analogs in the New World to all these animals. In Nebraska, we had elephants, rhinoceros, and camels. Why did all those big game animals become extinct here when they managed to survive in Africa—where there were more humans hunting them? Why? We don’t know.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but far less than 1 percent of the state has been carefully explored for fossils.
Elephant and Mammoth Ivory
Modern elephants in Africa face persistent pressure from poachers and conflict with human settlements that encroach on an evermore limited range of habitat.
To address the poaching crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which went into effect in 1975) banned the ivory trade in 1989. But African elephant populations had already collapsed during the decade leading up to the ban, falling from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants.
Despite decades of coordinated international efforts to protect African elephants, grim statistics remain a reality today: “An elephant is killed every 15 minutes,” according to The Ivory Game, Netflix’s original documentary released in November 2016. The vast majority of that blood ivory is destined for China.
The CITES ban has allowed several technical loopholes for African elephant ivory. For example: pre-Convention and pre-ban (antique) ivory could be bought or sold, as could ivory harvested from African safari hunts.
After Beijing declared traditional Chinese ivory carving to be an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006, China participated in a one-off purchase of 108 tons of ivory sourced from naturally deceased elephants in 2008. The sale raised $15 million for African conservation, and the Chinese government has been slowly allocating the stockpile to licensed factories for sale only in the domestic Chinese market. Many environmentalists view the sale as a failure for stimulating demand and providing a front for the laundering of “blood ivory.”
Mammoth ivory is an entirely different beast. CITES does not regulate the trade in fossils or extinct animals. Prehistoric ivory is a way around the global regulation of elephant ivory.
Most of the world’s untouched mammoth ivory remains locked in the frozen permafrost of Siberia. When snows melt during the brief Arctic summer (from mid-July to mid-September), riverbanks often reveal prehistoric remains. Warmer summers means the permafrost is thawed longer every year. That means more and more mammoth tusks are protruding from the ground every year.
Indigenous locals, seasonal tusk hunters, and Russian gangs aggregate the raw tusks in Siberia. Officially, the tusks must be approved for export by the government authorities, but traders (and smugglers) are increasingly taking their purchases directly into mainland China over the land border with Russia, Mongolia, or neighboring countries.
Chinese demand for mammoth ivory has pros and cons. The trade is potentially beneficial for identification of excavation sites—hunting of tusks is incentivized, so tusks are saved that would otherwise be destroyed from exposure to the elements after millennia underground; however, the trade destroys the integrity of excavation sites disrupted by tusk hunters.
According to John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, more than 90 percent of Russian mammoth ivory exports went to China (including Hong Kong) in the past 10 years, with total Chinese imports surpassing 80 tons annually from 2010 to 2015 according to the official trade database of the United Nations.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Nebraska’s state fossil is not just ancient history. The mammoth is an important player in the global ivory trade today.
Changing Regulatory Landscapes
Today, on the crowded streets of Hong Kong’s tourist districts, there are roughly half a dozen storefronts that advertise mammoth ivory products for sale. Signs visible outside the mammoth shops promote the legality of prehistoric ivory—tusks of extinct woolly mammoths harvested from the frozen permafrost of Russian Siberia.
Hong Kong played a crucial role in developing China’s niche mammoth ivory market. Before and after the CITES ban, the former-British colony (which became a special administrative region of China in 1997) also served as a key transit hub for elephant ivory—legal and illegal—entering the mainland Chinese market.
Implementation of the 1989 elephant ivory ban brought about major declines in Hong Kong’s ivory carving industry. During the same time period, however, the mainland Chinese economy enjoyed rapid economic growth—boosting demand for luxurious ivory products among the nation’s nouveau riche.
As demand for ivory intensified in China, the government implemented an extensive licensing system, mandatory certification cards for legal elephant ivory products, stiff penalties, and a crackdown on smuggling. Despite the risks, black market ivory dealers continued to cash in on Chinese market conditions to maintain the country’s status as the world’s primary destination for black market elephant ivory (followed next by the United States).
Destructions of seized ivory stockpiles followed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013. Then, two months later, Chinese authorities crushed more than 6 tons of its own seized ivory in Guangzhou province. Over the course of 2014-2016, Hong Kong’s government followed suit with the incineration of 28.86 tons, nearly all of its seizure stockpile—the world’s largest ivory burn until Kenya torched 105 tons ($172 million worth) of ivory in 2016.
During a September 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”
In the U.S., tightened elephant ivory laws went into effect in July of 2016 to close loopholes for pre-ban ivory, antiques, and hunting trophies.
Cheryl Lo, a senior wildlife crime officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong told Omaha Magazine in late November that she expected Beijing to reveal China’s implementation plan sometime in December. No status update had been released as of the magazine’s press deadline. Hong Kong officials had already announced the implementation plan for the territory’s more stringent ivory regulation in June 2016.
Lo says her research for the WWF found that Hong Kong’s registered elephant ivory stockpile has remained level for many years, indicating that traders were likely replenishing with black market stocks.
She says more research on mammoth ivory in Hong Kong is needed. At this moment, she says there is no evidence to prove systematic laundering or smuggling of African elephant ivory into China under the guise of mammoth tusks. “The current concern is probably at the individual store level—shops that intentionally or accidentally misrepresent or mislabel to consumers that elephant ivory is mammoth,” Lo says, noting that the potential for wrongdoing should still be monitored.
In the future, China’s implementation of stricter ivory regulations will likely increase market pressure on the prehistoric ivory stocks. Being able to tell the difference, then, becomes paramount. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to identify—especially in tusks that are heavily processed or scrimshawed with ink.
Mammoth tusks sometimes exhibit a rocky/mineralized exterior, discoloration from being underground, with denser consistency than elephant tusks. But this generalization does not always apply to high quality tusks gathered from the permafrost.
Likewise, tusks from adult male mammoths are generally larger with greater spiral curvature than African elephant tusks. “But this is not true of all mammoth tusks. Some very much resemble tusks of elephants,” says University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammoths and mammoth tusks. “There are, of course, juvenile mammoths whose tusks are not large at all, and female mammoths whose tusks do not show much spiral curvature.”
While forensic methods can certify a tusk as belonging to a mammoth, the procedures could damage the specimen or require specialized lab equipment. The most certain means of verification requires a polished cross-section of the tusk. Close inspection of such a surface reveals intersecting spiral curves called “Schreger lines.” Elephant tusks exhibit Schreger lines that intersect with an angle greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth tusks exhibit an angle of less than 90 degrees.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Paleontologists estimate that at least 3,000 elephant fossils remain buried in the average square mile of Nebraska countryside.
Chinese Mammoth Ivory Dealers
Daniel Chan—the owner of Lise Carving & Jewellery in Hong Kong—claims to have first introduced mammoth ivory to the market.
“I began buying mammoth tusks from suppliers in Alaska and Canada in 1983. That was a very busy time for [elephant] ivory. In 1983, nobody wanted to use the prehistoric material, only me. I bought and kept it,” Chan says. “In the early ’90s, nobody was using this material. I was the first Hong Kong person to visit Moscow looking for mammoth tusks.”
In his Hong Kong factory/warehouse, several craftsmen are working at a long carving table. Whirring electrical tools spit ivory dust in the air as they carve Buddhist figures and trinkets from ancient material. There is even a baby mammoth skeleton in the corner of the room. It faces a mountain of mammoth tusks stored in shelves and piled on the floor.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chan pioneered the supply chain from Siberia to Hong Kong via Moscow. Competition followed. Other ivory dealers moved into his market niche and demand for mammoth ivory steadily grew. Mainland Chinese smugglers buying direct from Siberia and transporting their stocks over the land border with Russia became a major annoyance, undercutting his business.
One of Chan’s peers, carving master Chu Chung-shing says, “I can carve on any materials. I don’t need to break the law to make a living.” Chu owns two upscale shops that exclusively sell mammoth tusk artwork in Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts.
Chu’s Prestige Crafts storefronts glisten with ostentatious carvings, which stretch up and around gigantic, spiraling mammoth tusks. His work was exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and he has had large exhibitions promoted by committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Chan and Chu shared similar experiences in their search for elephant ivory alternatives.
“The ban was a huge blow to me. I even carved out of ox bone, but only for a short time. Everybody was trying something new after the ban,” Chu says, who eventually found an ideal substitute in mammoth ivory, even though the prehistoric tusks are denser and more prone to cracking than contemporary elephant tusks.
Both ivory insiders emphasize that any new ivory ban from the government should not impact the mammoth ivory trade because of the fundamental difference between the two products.
In Beijing, the China Association of Mammoth Ivory Art Research issues cards to authenticate mammoth ivory products, similar to the system mandated by the Chinese government for elephant ivory carvings. However, use of the mammoth registration cards is voluntary.
Chen Shu, the president of the association, maintains an extensive showroom of mammoth carving arts at his home. Large polished mammoth tusks join examples of historic schools of traditional Chinese ivory carving—from Canton ivory balls carved with impossibly intricate concentric spheres, to Beijing-style painted ivory carvings, and even delicate modern jewelry designs.
Many domestic buyers consider mammoth ivory to be a commodity investment, while others have used the expensive carvings to bribe or otherwise buy influence.
Chen watched prices skyrocket for prehistoric ivory in the past decade. The growth far outpaced changes in elephant ivory prices. He says raw elephant ivory increased from roughly 1,000-2,000 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 8,000-12,000 yuan per kilogram in 2013; over the same timespan, raw mammoth tusks that once sold for hundreds of yuan rose in price to 30,000-40,000 yuan per raw kilogram.
In the summer of 2016, Chen says that the mammoth ivory market was experiencing a downturn following the central government’s anti-corruption campaign, a slowing Chinese economy, and the Sino-U.S. agreement to strengthen regulation of the world’s two largest markets for black market ivory.
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
One mastodon is discovered for every 10 mammoths in the state.
Regulation of Mammoth Ivory
Mammoth tusks occupy an awkward place between opposing views on the global ivory trade. In the view of Chinese traders, mammoth ivory is an alternative to African elephant ivory that sustains their traditional craftsmanship.
Many environmental activists, on the other hand, view the mammoth ivory trade as a means of sustaining a hated industry.
Currently, India is the only country to have banned the sale of mammoth ivory. In the United States, four states have bans on the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory: New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii.
Nevertheless, Esmond Martin, one of the world’s leading elephant conservationists has cited mammoth ivory as a possible beneficial alternative to elephant ivory (so long as mammoth carvings are produced on a large enough scale that they can be easily differentiated from elephant carvings). Unfortunately for mammoth traders who buy bulk quantities that often include fragments and lower-grade tusks, such scale is not always financially viable.
Mammoth ivory was recently addressed at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa from Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, when national representatives gathered to discuss the state of global wildlife regulations.
In response to the “indirect threat” to elephant populations through the potential for laundering, a draft resolution from Israel urged monitoring of specimens and new mammoth ivory regulations. But the CITES secretariat ruled against the resolution, in part, due to the anecdotal nature of evidence.
Evidence published during the prior year included a 10-month undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League in Hong Kong and Beijing. The undercover report claimed that the Beijing-based Beijing Mammoth Art Co. Ltd had manipulated its connections in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese ivory regulations.
Hong Kong’s environmental groups have mounted a vocal campaign against the territory’s ivory traders. A coalition of local school children protested the Chinese state-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts (which has outlets across the mainland and Hong Kong), and in 2014, the retailer responded with an announcement that it would sell only mammoth ivory. The commitment did not apply across mainland China, however; the Beijing arm of the company—an enormous shopping mall located near the historic city center—continued to sell both elephant and mammoth ivory products in summer of 2016.
“After the Hong Kong government bans elephant ivory in the new year, Hong Kong’s trade in mammoth ivory will also need a closer look,” says Alex Hofford, an environmental activist and WildAid wildlife campaigner, who alleges that prehistoric ivory trade is a “cynical laundering mechanism for freshly poached elephant ivory.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA The sale or purchase of mammoth ivory is not regulated in the state of Nebraska.
A Precious Scientific Commodity
University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher says that China’s mammoth ivory supply chain is cutting into a precious scientific resource.
“Tusks hold the history of a mammoth’s life,” Fisher says. “Tusks are highly specialized incisor teeth, and they grow by adding thin layers of material, only 10-20 microns thick, for every day of the animal’s life. The composition and density of new tusk material varies with the seasons, in an annual cycle, so that a tusk also ends up showing annual layers that are, in principle, something like the rings of a tree.”
Cross-sections of tusks analyzed under a microscope can reveal the mammoth’s reproductive cycles, daily behavior, and might even offer clues into the secrets of global warming through changes in the creature’s diet. “We’re also looking at how they responded to human expansion into the Arctic, so this is also a story of our history,” he says.
For the past 18 years, Fisher has made annual trips to study mammoth excavation sites in Siberia. While exploring the most desolate corners of the Russian tundra, he has traveled by helicopter, boat, reindeer sled, and even hovercraft. But most of his fieldwork is done on foot.
“In many cases, I was following in the footsteps of the ivory hunters, and they are getting all they can. Even if some ivory doesn’t fetch a prime price, it might be worth something, and they don’t leave much behind,” he says.
Sometimes the modern mammoth hunters discover tusks from places where ancient human hunters stored carcass parts. Removing specimens from these sites destroys the archeological context, which scientists could otherwise study. Sometimes, he says the Russian Academy of Sciences will flag tusks for scientific retention. But that’s still rare, and by the time they do, site-specific data is already lost.
Fisher’s research has taken him all over the world. Even Nebraska. In 2006, he examined the Crawford mammoths (then-housed at Morrill Hall in Lincoln). The fighting mammoths, locked in eternal battle, are now on display at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum in the northwestern corner of the state.
George Corner remembers Fisher’s visit, and he laments that most of the tusks recovered with Nebraska’s mammoths are in no suitable shape for carving.
“You don’t hear a lot about fossil ivory in Nebraska. Special conditions preserve the tusks, like the frozen permafrost of Alaska or Siberia,” Corner says. “If you were to pick up a tusk from the loess soil around Omaha, you would just have a pile of tusk fragments.”
NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA “We find elephant remains all the time in Nebraska. But it’s rare to find a skeleton or even a partial skeleton anymore. That’s because of a change in road construction practice. Instead of letting road cuts lay open, the Roads Department will immediately grass them over or seed them with hay. So, we don’t have a lot of time anymore to look at road cuts.”
Getting high on injected heroin—or one of the several synthetic equivalents—does not feel like an orgasm or a dozen orgasms. That is a mythical description the average non-user appreciates, so it gets repeated. The truth is more sinister. Whether you spike a vein with melted oxy in a back alley or get your Dilaudid prescribed in-hospital, getting high on injected opiates feels like being 4 years old, falling asleep in your mother’s lap while watching your favorite movie. You feel safe, warm, satisfied, and content to do nothing. Your nervous system melts like butter with a warm tingling sensation. Emotional and physical pain dissipate. Trauma becomes meaningless. You nod off. Occasionally, you approach consciousness long enough to melt into it again. And on it goes over and over. The first time is always the best, and no matter how long you chase that first high, you will never see it again.
According to Nebraska’s Vital Statistics Department, at least 54 people died from overdosing on opiates in the state during 2015.
Anything above and beyond pain relief is experienced as a rush of dopamine to the pleasure center of the brain. Addicts will escalate the amount of opioids they consume until coming across a bad batch mixed with other drugs—such as large-animal tranquilizers—or they stumble onto an unusually pure source, take too much, and overdose. Some users accidentally consume a fatal cocktail of prescriptions with alcohol or other drugs. In recent years, overdoses involving opiates have claimed the lives of several celebrities: the musician Prince, actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Cory Monteith, and the list goes on.
In the state of Nebraska, deaths from opiate overdoses are on the rise. According to Nebraska’s Vital Statistics Department, at least 54 people died from overdosing on opiates in the state during 2015. Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that six out of every 10 drug overdoses involve opiates of some kind. From 1999 to 2014, roughly 165,000 Americans died from opiate-related overdoses, quadrupling the numbers from previous years, according to the Center for Disease Control. The death toll is climbing. The most recent CDC estimates suggest 78 Americans overdose on opiates every day.
The Local Frontline
Russell Janssen is a case manager at the Open Door Mission, located between Carter Lake and the Missouri River. At age 20, he was introduced to heroin and was an intravenous user until the age of 39. Off heroin now for nearly two decades, Janssen spends his days treating people with the very addiction problems he has faced and continues to battle.
“I’ve been clean for 19 and a half years and I’ll still have ‘using’ dreams,” Janssen says. “They don’t affect me the way they used to. When I first cleaned up, I would wake up in cold sweats. I’d try to go back to sleep and just couldn’t. I still wake up to this day, but now I can lay down and go back to sleep. The thought is always there, though, and never leaves us.”
Heroin addiction is powerful, Janssen says, too powerful for anyone to be completely beyond it, especially if they think they are “too smart to get hooked.” And while most drugs will provide some high with diminishing returns, heroin burns out the brain’s pleasure center and forces users to do more and more in order to “stay even” and barely functional. Serious daily side effects include nausea, abdominal pain, high agitation, muscle cramps and spasms, as well as depression and cravings leading to relapse.
“The problem with heroin is you have to have it just to maintain,” Janssen says. “It’s not just about getting high. I’d go through $150 a day just to maintain for the 12 to 14 hours that I was up. If I wanted to get high I had to go above that amount because you gotta have it.”
And “it,” per Janssen, is never the same twice. Prescription opioids are a known quality, but black market drugs are unregulated and full of pitfalls. Drugs are cut with useless fillers and other substances to increase profits for dealers: “People die because they’re doing so many weird things with it. People died in Cincinnati, Ohio, because they were mixing elephant tranquilizer in with the heroin. And even though heroin addicts know that it’s out there—and they know it’s killing people—they go looking, thinking ‘I’ve got to have it just to maintain,’ so they’re willing to take that chance.”
Janssen says the access to opioids through prescriptions has changed the face of heroin addiction, making it easier and less stigmatic to start, the biggest mistake anyone can make.
“In the `70s, heroin addicts were the lowest of the low. Even other drug users didn’t want anything to do with heroin users. That’s changed a lot today because people get prescribed opiates, and they think that if a doctor prescribes it that it can’t be harmful for them. But that’s a way that people get addicted. We’re gonna see a lot more people out (in West Omaha) getting addicted.”
Chris Eynon is an eight-year recovering meth addict, a graduate of the Miracles Treatment Program at the Siena/Francis House, and, for the last two years, its treatment coordinator. He is seeing an increase in the number of people seeking help for heroin and opioid addiction.
“We are certainly seeing an increase in the amount of applicants wanting recovery here (in Omaha),” says Eynon, who has also witnessed the dire circumstances facing East Coast communities. He spent several weeks during March in Cumberland, Maryland, a town of roughly 20,000 where he was helping a friend to start a prayer service for heroin addicts. “Out on the East Coast, (heroin addiction) is really significant there. Just in the small community of Cumberland, they have been devastated. Last year in their county they experienced 14 deaths due to overdose, and as of this year already they have experienced over 30. Most of them are high school kids, and most of them are heroin overdoses.”
From Vietnam Vets to Millennials
The current heroin/opioid epidemic is reminiscent of the Vietnam War era when access to plentiful and pure China White heroin combined with the stress of combat, and roughly 15 percent of all enlisted men had fallen into addiction. In 1971, Operation Golden Flow (the unofficial name of widespread military drug testing campaign) was designed by the Department of Defense to “clean up” American GIs before sending them home. While many came home and never used again because the circumstances of their drug use changed drastically, others relapsed at home as black market heroin followed the demand back from Vietnam to the U.S.
A New York Times article from May 1986 reported the number of U.S. addicts at roughly 500,000 (with 200,000 in New York alone). That heroin epidemic began subsiding as popularity for crack cocaine took over the streets. Studies from the Golden Flow era laid the groundwork for much of what we know about opioid addiction in 2016.
With the widespread prevalence of opiate prescriptions, a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that today’s veterans are at an even greater risk than their earlier counterparts for heroin addiction, as the VA was treating chronic pain with prescriptions for opioids “almost exclusively.” The 2011 study reported that veterans are twice as likely to suffer accidentally fatal opioid overdoses than non-veteran civilians. Since the 2012 height of the VA’s opioid prescriptions to veterans, the federal department has made an effort to decrease opiate prescriptions in favor of more comprehensive approaches to pain management.
Over the past 10 years, the CDC has observed that heroin use among 18-25 year olds has more than doubled in the general population. According to the CDC, 90 percent of people who try heroin have tried at least one other drug first, and, an astonishing 45 percent of heroin users were addicted to prescription opioid painkillers such as Vicodin, oxycodone, oxycontin, fentanyl, Dilaudid, and morphine before switching to heroin. In 2014, prescription opioids killed more than 28,000 of the 2,000,000 Americans dependent on them. From 1999 to 2013, the amount of prescription opioids dispensed in the U.S. nearly quadrupled.
With the widespread prevalence of opiate prescriptions, a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that today’s veterans are at an even greater risk than their earlier counterparts for heroin addiction, as the VA was treating chronic pain with prescriptions for opioids “almost exclusively.”
A May 2014 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains: “It is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide with an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012 and an estimated 467,000 addicted to heroin. The consequences of this abuse have been devastating and are on the rise.”
Across Socioeconomic Divisions
While the Midwest currently sees fewer opiate overdoses than the coasts, that danger is growing across all socioeconomic segments of the population.
Janssen, Eynon, and several recovering addicts who spoke with Omaha Magazine on the condition of anonymity agreed that teens, the affluent, insured and educated are at risk—because when experimenting with opioid pills, youths often hold the false assumption that nothing bad can happen with drugs prescribed by a doctor, even if those pills were obtained without permission.
“They might steal them from a medicine cabinet or have their own prescription at some point,” Eynon says, echoing similar points made by the other counselors that middle-class white people with many relatives, each with several doctors, might find themselves practically surrounded by easily obtained and occasionally leftover prescriptions. “In my opinion, we will see a lot of West Omaha-type addicts. Prescription medication is usually attained through insurance coverage. In order to have insurance, you would need a job, which falls more into the ‘rich kid’ category.”
Sara B. comes from the less affluent segment of recovering addicts. A fast-talking 32-year-old with attention deficit disorder, also a mother of seven, she signed over the rights to her children to her counselor for their protection while she sought help. She is working hard in order to maintain a relationship with her children.
“I started because people around me, family members were doing it,” says Sara, who has been clean now for the better part of a decade. She still has to guard against relapse, maintaining sobriety for her children as well as her health. She is wary of family who are still actively using. “Which is hard because you have to stay away from users when you get clean if you want to stay clean,” she says. “It’s too easy to fall back.”
Justin Schwope is a 26-year-old recovering addict with four years of sobriety under Russell Janssen’s wing at Open Door. His habit of choice was a speedball, heroin and meth, though other stimulants can be substituted.
“I’d been messing with drugs since I was 16 and my grandparents died,” Schwope says. “I wasn’t able to get clean until I tried kill myself with Lipitor and woke up in Creighton three days later and then transferred to Lasting Hope.”
All sources interviewed by Omaha Magazine agreed that the transition from pure opiates to street junk is the greatest threat to the health and welfare of addicts. When the easy access to opiates runs out, addicts look elsewhere risking everything just to stay even, and even to get that high.
“In Maryland apparently, there was a mass supply of prescription drugs or ‘pill farms’ that were seized and, as a result, (users) turned to heroin, which is cheaper and easily available,” Eynon says. “They have an addiction to feed and, unfortunately, the heroin is not like prescription drugs which are regulated…and the pills are always consistent in strength and dose amounts. When they switch to heroin, they have no idea of the potency or what it might be laced with.”
Increased Regulatory Oversight
Tragic stories of opiate overdoses and abuse have become too commonplace.
After Omaha resident Carrie Howard suffered a severe car accident, she began taking prescription painkillers. The pills led to an addiction that culminated in a fatal overdose in 2009. The legacy of her untimely death made waves through Nebraska’s legislature. Carrie’s mother is former senator Gwen Howard; her sister is Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha.
The elder Howard championed legislation that created a prescription painkiller monitoring program in 2011. But the program fell short in many respects. Sara Howard continued the family’s fight for improved regulatory oversight of prescribed opiates when she introduced LB 471 to the state’s unicameral.
Upon receiving first-round approval in January 2016, several senators recounted their own families’ close encounters with opiate addiction. Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha revealed that one of his own relatives had suffered from a prescription painkiller addiction, an addiction sustained by shopping around different doctors and pharmacies. When the prescriptions dried up, Lindstrom’s relative turned to heroin.
The unicameral finally approved LB 471 in February 2016. It comes into effect in the new year. LB 471 will require pharmacies to report when prescriptions are filled, and would allow pharmacists to check records of past prescriptions to avoid abuse. There are two phases to this. Beginning January 1, 2017, all prescriptions of controlled substances will be reported to the prescription drug monitoring program. Beginning January 2018, all prescriptions will be reported.
A few weeks prior to Nebraska approving LB 471, President Barack Obama had announced that $1.1 billion would be made available for expanded opiate-related treatment opportunities across the country. According to a statement from the White House, “More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do in motor vehicle crashes.”
Already in the previous year, Nebraska received two significant grants to combat statewide opioid-related abuse: one for more than $3 million over four years from the CDC for prescription drug overdose prevention, the other for $500,000 over two years from the Department of Justice.
The funding comes at a pivotal moment. America is experiencing a perfect storm for an opioid epidemic. War, health care in crisis, addiction, easy access, and low employment are among the many factors forcing opioids into the drug user’s spotlight. Once, only the lowest drug users shot junk. Today, if not tomorrow, someone you love might be the next junkie you meet.
To get help for substance abuse problems, call: 1-800-662-HELP.
While most homeowners—especially married couples—decide to downsize in their 40s, 50s, or even their 60s, newlyweds Lucas and Andrea Orton opted to do so much earlier.
The Omaha couple had only been married four months when they left their 850-square-foot rental in midtown and began building a 280-square-foot house on wheels. By today’s tiny house standards, that’s slightly larger than most.
Lucas, 33, and Andrea, 34, love the outdoors. They met near the Elkhorn River and married there in May 2015. While camping at Lake Cunningham one morning, they noticed a number of RVs parked outdoors. It was then they began discussing their dream of tiny house living.
Neither Lucas nor Andrea watch much TV. They were not aware of the tiny house trend until they began researching their next steps online.
“We started looking into (tiny houses) and said, ‘Oh, wow. This is a thing,’” Andrea recalls.
Soon after, Lucas and Andrea hosted a garage sale at their midtown home. Organizing items for the garage sale was the first of what would be many eye-opening experiences of separating their stuff: what to keep and what to sell.
“We were literally pulling stuff out of the house for four hours,” Andrea explains. “And we’ve gotten rid of truckloads since the garage sale. One minute you’re saying, ‘I love this. I’m going to keep this.’ And eight months later, it’s ‘I don’t really love that.’”
In September of last year, construction of the Ortons’ tiny house began. Lucas quit his job as a sound engineer to pursue building the tiny house full-time. The couple moved in with Lucas’ father in northwest Omaha, first building the tiny house in the barn. Once the walls, roof, and windows were complete, they hitched the house to a truck and pulled it permanently outdoors. Friends and family unexpectedly showed up to witness the big (or should we say small?) move.
“Pulling it out of the barn and dealing with centimeters of clearance, it was like giving birth,” Andrea says with a grin.
The tiny house now sits a few hundred feet from the barn. Lucas works on the house just about every day, with their spunky French Bulldog/Boston Terrier mix, Gus, by his side. Lucas used to remodel houses, so mastering the basics proved fairly easy. The rest—such as plumbing and electrical—he learned how to do from blogs, websites and online videos.
When it is finished, the house will feature contemporary interior design, with white walls, dark flooring, and natural woods. LED lighting has been installed throughout, but an abundance of windows allows natural light to stream in during the day.
They plan to add a modular front porch, which will provide additional seating outdoors (weather permitting).
For Lucas (an Omaha native) and Andrea (a Louisiana transplant), building and living in a tiny house has two primary purposes: consolidating their lifestyles and living without debt. The couple has budgeted around $30,000 for the project, and they have been paying for supplies and materials as they go. Most items were purchased locally at The Home Depot and Lowe’s, while others have been ordered online (including windows and the air conditioner). The house has standard electrical but has been wired for solar energy.
And while more is continually added inside (and outside) the house, the purging continues, which Andrea describes as “one crazy ride.”
She adds that getting rid of their belongings has been almost spiritual: “I like to shop, and I work in a retail environment. But even when I go to the store now, I don’t spend nearly as much or get nearly as much as I normally would because it’s not going to fit. We’ve been going through multiple stages of purge, just tapering, tapering, and it’s still too much.”
Lucas and Andrea’s worldly possessions now reside in eight large bins in their temporary bedroom.
“Well, that’s not completely true,” Andrea says after a brief pause. “There’s a little bit more spilling into another room, and I’m trying to reel that in. There’s a get-rid-of pile, and every day I’m adding to it.”
Lucas and Andrea continue to research other pieces of living in a (tiny) house on wheels, among them mail delivery and internet access. They eventually plan to purchase a large pick-up truck that will allow them to tow the house as needed, and even store larger items in the truck’s bed.
They expect to park their home at its current address, live in it through the winter, and move it elsewhere in 2017—likely on vacation while exploring parts of the United States.
For homeowners (and even apartment dwellers) intrigued by tiny house living, Lucas and Andrea have a bit of advice: Draft a lengthy list of pros and cons. Look at tiny houses online. Tour them if they’re nearby. Finally, minimalize and consolidate all belongings, and try to live in a single room.
In February 2013, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns announced he would not seek reelection for his senate seat this November. But don’t ask him if he’s looking forward to his retirement.
“Well, retirement is always (discussed) in these circumstances when you’ve decided not to seek reelection,” Johanns says. “I honestly don’t plan on retiring as such. I’m not exactly certain what will be next, but no, it won’t be retirement.”
Due to senate ethics rules, Johanns isn’t able to officially accept offers for employment until after the November elections, “but you can answer a call or a letter, and it looks like there’s a lot of interesting things out there,” he says.
Of course, if he was to retire, who could blame him? His political career is coming to a close after 32 years of public service across a variety of offices. During those 32 years, Johanns was either running for something, or his wife Stephanie was running for something, or he was serving, or Stephanie was serving. For her part, Stephanie has worked as both a county commissioner and a Nebraska state senator.
So, it’s hard not to speculate in an information vacuum. The most natural move, considering his past, might be some form of return to his agricultural roots. After all, Johanns is a farmboy at heart. And, in his life outside of city and county government, agriculture has been a major focus of his life.
In fact, early on, he considered a life on the farm he grew up on in Iowa. “You know, I gave it a lot of thought. My parents put a tremendous amount of value in education. And they would always say, ‘Get an education, then come and talk to us about farming.’ I think they knew that once we left the farm and got a college degree, I think they were fully aware of the fact that we probably weren’t going to end up farming.”
He did end up back on the farm for one summer after receiving his bachelor’s at St. Mary’s University. “I loved farming,” he says. “And I was good at it. I was good with livestock and good with equipment.” But, his great passion was the law. So, after undergraduate work in Minnesota, he attended Creighton Law School.
With law degree in hand, Johanns began to consider running for political office. But that young Johanns is not the politician we know now. Consider: He had grown up in a devoutly Catholic family with pictures of the Pope and John F. Kennedy on the wall. “I think as a very young man, I kind of thought, gosh, what a great calling. I must admit, (Kennedy) probably sparked the interest as much as anything.”
In 1981, Johanns ran for county commissioner in Lancaster County as a Democrat. He was elected to the position in 1983.
Before Johanns won his seat with the Lincoln City Council, he found himself inspired by another charismatic president: Ronald Reagan. His view of the role of government shifted. In time, he says, “I just felt the conservative philosophy matched my judgments better.”
Johanns was elected mayor of Lincoln in 1991 and served for eight years. Immediately after, he became Nebraska’s governor. He was reelected for a second term in 2002, becoming the first Republican to do so since the ’50s.
As governor, Johanns traveled frequently, often to Asian countries to facilitate the sale of Nebraska agricultural products to a growing middle class. Johanns’ background in agriculture didn’t escape the attention of Washington, D.C. George W. Bush appointed Johanns as his Secretary of Agriculture in 2004.
“I had the background in agriculture, I came from a big ag state. This was a natural,” Johanns says.
After a few years in a cabinet position, he was ready for something else. So, he ran for the U.S. Senate. “It was just a great opportunity to take that ag background, a background as mayor and governor, and put that to work.”
As Johanns prepares to leave his seat in the Senate this November, he can look back on a career that’s fairly controversy-free. Indeed, the few controversies in which he’s been embroiled where more a consequence of party politics, not his own maneuvers. Take, for example, the explosive issue of the government shutdown last October. His natural inclination was to negotiate and diffuse.
“I said before the shutdown, I wasn’t sent to Washington to shut down the government.”
He reflects that each office he has held had its own challenges. If closing government was a nightmare at the federal level, trying to open a new jail (as any city or county officials would likely agree) was a nightmare in Lancaster County. “As county commissioner, we built a new jail. And nothing is more controversial than a new jail. No one wants to spend money on jails.”
Perhaps public life was more contentious at the most local level. When he was on the Lincoln City Council, there were budget issues. Throughout eight years as mayor of Lincoln, controversy was everywhere from budgets to planning.
While Johanns says he has no plans for retirement, it is clear he has plans for a more leisurely pace in life. When describing his idea of the perfect future—halcyon days spent with his wife and grandchildren—he does sound a bit like a man targeting semi-retirement.
“A life that would let us focus on our faith—faith is very important,” he says. “We have grandkids, and I have two children by my first marriage, and then five grandchildren. Stephanie and I want to spend more time with family.”
It also sounds like Johanns hopes to spend more time in the couple’s home in the Old Market enjoying his wife’s company.
“Stephanie wakes up every day believing that it’s this day that’s the best day of her life. And that attitude just…if you met her, you would say how does she do that? But she lives her life that way. The two of us have just had the most amazing time.”
As director of inCOMMON, a nonprofit organization located at 13th and William streets, Christian Gray thrives on building relationships in the Omaha community. Growing up in the affluent suburbs of Orange County, Calif., Gray was rarely exposed to the hardships many Americans face, but somehow he got the message that material wealth is not what life is about.
“When I began to juxtapose a wealthy lifestyle with the lifestyle of millions around the world, and even here locally in the United States, it began to bother me,” Gray admits. “It began to make me uneasy about what life is, and I began asking questions like ‘What is the purpose of life? Is it to be comfortable? Successful?’ I began to challenge a lot of those notions that I think were just part of the culture growing up.”
After graduating from the University of Arizona, where he met his wife, Sonya, Gray began seeking out places where he could help. His passion for helping the poor has taken him from Romania to India to South Africa and back to the U.S. During the process, he had time to really self-reflect on the bigger picture.
“I’m still trying to figure it out, but I think the purpose of life is to live wholly and richly,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you have a ton of stuff or even a ton of success. It means you’re an authentic person, and you care about other people, and you’re part of a greater global community and humanity. I think that’s the answer. I think the way we go about that all looks differently. Locations can change and reflect how we can live that out. I think that’s the purpose of life, to really be a part of enriching the global community.”
Once settled in Omaha, Gray got to work on inCOMMON, which specializes in uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods. He spearheads many subsidiary programs, such as The Listening Project and Neighbors United.
inCOMMON incorporates Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) practices into its work. ABCD is a best-practice that dates back to the 1970s. “We try to build upon a neighborhood’s pre-existing strengths,” he explains. “We have the Listening Project, where we train volunteers to go into the community and hear from its residents and try to build solutions to their problems.”
As a result of information gathered from The Listening Project around the Park Avenue neighborhood, inCOMMON is preparing to open a community center in June called Park Avenue Commons. Located on the corner of Park Avenue and Woolworth Street, the dilapidated Acme Rug and Carpet Cleaning building is getting a new life as a part of Gray’s vision.
“When I began to juxtapose a wealthy lifestyle with the lifestyle of millions around the world, and even here locally in the United States, it began to bother me.”
“I had a growing compassion for the condition of people that are poor, and I wanted to be a part of creating better futures for our communities in that way,” Gray says. “Park Avenue Commons will provide easier access to social services, emergency and preventative services, and a place to come together as a community.”
Gray has many dedicated volunteers that share the same passion for helping the less fortunate. For example, Omaha resident Leslie Wells is gearing up for a recycling program, in which he provides bikes for the homeless to collect recyclables from downtown businesses. Gray emphasizes it’s about building those relationships in order to cultivate community development and empowerment.
“‘The single greatest cause for sustained poverty is isolation,’” he says, quoting Dr. Robert Lupton of FCS Urban Ministries. “If we look at poverty, at least in an urban context, as people living in an isolated community that are cut off from opportunities, then relationships are key because they allow people to bridge outside their limited ranges to a greater opportunity. Strong neighborhoods require that people know each other and people are cooperative with one another and working to solve problems together. The key to overcoming poverty is to have residents that know each other and work together.”