Jack McKey makes weapons, tools and clothing using ancient Native American techniques and natural materials.
So he knows about animals. He uses one to describe what happened to him at a border crossing between Alaska and the Yukon.
“Handle a rattlesnake long enough, you get familiar with it,” he says. “You don’t worry about it biting you.”
This is McKey’s way of saying he had lied before to Canadian Customs agents, when they asked if he was transporting animal parts. But when he lied on June 10, 1996, one of them called his bluff. He got bit badly, agonizingly.
He lost raw materials and artwork that represent 30 years of effort. While he hasn’t given up hope of getting the items back - that’s why he is going public with his story - Canadian wildlife agent Garry Grigg says bluntly: “This is the end. We’re finished. Kaput. Finit.”
The Canadians consider McKey a smuggler, pure and simple. He not only broke international wildlife laws but lied about transporting weapons. The $1,265 in Canadian fines he’s paid and the possessions he’s lost are well-deserved punishment, Grigg believes.
Even the United States fined him $4,500 for violating the Bald Eagle Protection Act and the Marine Mammal Act, for unlawfully possessing migratory birds and failing to declare wildlife.
McKey knew he shouldn’t own eagle feathers. He says they and other rare animal parts were gifts or purchases from Native Americans, who can legally possess them. He says wildlife protection laws are confusing, leaving him unsure when he needed permits.
Whether seen as a bad guy or a good guy, there’s no question McKey is a talented one.
The native techniques he discovered through fanatical research and trial and error are incomparable, according to people who know his work.
“He can make replicas of historical objects that are exceptionally exquisite, and he passes on what he learns through lectures and the written word,” says Philip Stepney, director of the Museum of Alberta.
“He can figure out the really obscure things, things that in many cases have been completely lost.”
DeWayne Williams considers McKey a genius. Williams, an Army Corps of Engineers staffer and member of the Society of Primitive Technology, offered inheritance money to pay McKey’s fines. He’s looking for an attorney capable of fighting Canada on McKey’s behalf.
“His craftsmanship is absolutely impeccable. When I found out he not only doesn’t sell it, but never plans to sell it. …,” says Williams. He adds: “The objects they’ve taken belong to us, U.S. citizens.”
Among those who took up McKey’s cause was U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. He appealed to Canada’s ambassador and its minister of foreign affairs. He convinced U.S. wildlife officials to offer McKey after-the-fact permits listing the artworks as “household goods,” if the Canadians would accept the permits. They would not.
Craig’s regional assistant in Lewiston, Susan Fagan, took the case as far as she could.
“Our approach was to say he made a mistake. Now, is there some way we can have compassion or mercy? Do we beat this man up to the extent that he’s lost most of everything he ever worked with?”
McKey (pronounced Mack-ee) is 55 and talks with the drawl of his native Georgia. He’s a storyteller, an occasional ranter against government. He’s also a cheerful sort whose mind never detours far from his passion for making things.
“The first ‘membrance I have is playing in the sandbox, making little tepees out of leaves,” he says. “I built my first birch bark canoe when I was 9, and I’d never seen one in my life.”
He built a fishing boat for natives on Alaska’s Admiralty Island. Last summer in Orofino, he helped volunteers who were struggling to make dugout canoes for the Lewis and Clark Experience.
He doesn’t use modern tools or adhesives. He uses bones and rocks, sinew and animal-based glue. Every landscape, he says, contains everything needed for survival.
He has no use for trophy killing. He has no college degree.
In recent years his school-counselor wife, Betty, has supported the couple so he can focus on his creations.
“When Betty goes to bed, he goes with her for two or three hours, then he gets up and works until dawn,” Williams says. “Then he stays up all day working.”
The couple has lived in Wyoming, Montana and Alaska. They were moving to Idaho on June 10, 1996, when they stopped at the Beaver Creek border crossing. Betty McKey had an appointment to interview for her current job at Orofino High School.
They were driving a pickup and pulling a 17-foot-long stock trailer. It held everything they owned.
McKey was exhausted, in a hurry.
The details of that encounter at the border differ dramatically, depending on who’s talking. The Canadians say McKey told them he killed 18 grizzly bears; McKey says he’s never killed a grizzly. The McKeys say they cooperated fully. The Canadians say Jack McKey became angry and interrupted officers.
According to a written Canadian Customs account, an agent insisted on looking in the trailer. McKey says he invited her to open the back doors, thinking she would see nothing and not ask to go farther. But a bag containing a black bear hide had fallen from the ceiling, he says. It was the first thing the officer saw.
“The next item was another burlap sac (sic) containing the hide of a cinnamon bear and various other skins,” the Customs account says.
At that point, they read McKey his rights.
The Canadians’ attitude was not improved by the fact that they found two Winchester rifles and a shotgun, after McKey denied owning any weapons. He says he didn’t know they were in the trailer. He thought a friend had them.
A 10-hour search followed.
Two U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers participated. Their agency, which kept the seized material for two months, listed 77 items. Those included boxes, bundles and jars full of sinew, hides, feathers, buffalo horns, rawhide strips, skulls, bear claws, goose feathers.
“All of my stone working tools, they kept. All the bone tools I use for hides, they kept,” McKey says. “They kept my crooked knives that I use for making canoes.”
They kept quivers, parkas, mukluks, knife sheaths and lances.
Most valuable of all were seven bows. McKey says he’s been offered $30,000 for one of them.
Stepney, the museum director, speaks glowingly of those powerful bows, made in the style of Plains Indians out of sheep horns, bone and sinew. “He can shoot them several hundred yards, which outperforms contemporary bows.”
Ivan Small, a Crow Indian in Browning, Mont., says no one in his tribe makes horn bows anymore. Having only heard about them from old warriors, he was delighted to see McKey make them. “To take a bighorn ram who has a curled horn, straighten that out to make a bow, is an art in itself,” Small says.
When McKey lived on the Blackfeet Reservation, Small says, he would teach Indian schoolchildren about making tomahawks and lances, about brain-tanning hides. McKey was invited to summer encampments to explain the old ways.
Gilbert Lucero watched McKey demonstrate his bows in the Alaskan village of Angoon, and says: “It’s like feeling and seeing history.”
The fate of McKey’s bows is uncertain. Grigg told him he could get them back by paying a fine of up to $7,000 each. He didn’t have the money. He then asked that his works be sent to the Museum of Alberta in Edmonton.
The Canadians refused.
“We will NOT be directed by Mr. McKey,” Grigg says. Instead, he says, the artwork will be sent to Canadian tribes. “The bulk of the items is odds and ends, bits and pieces and chunks of fur. We’ll destroy those.”
Stepney is relieved that McKey’s creations won’t be destroyed. But he says they are less valuable without McKey there to explain what went into making them.
The Canadians returned McKey’s firearms. They released six big boxes of hides, horns and other raw materials. They also sent back one lance, after removing the ivory tip.
Jim Stanford, a friend from Haines, Alaska, picked up those items. He was saddened to glimpse McKey’s other possessions, stored haphazardly in a warehouse.
Stanford doesn’t blame the Customs officers.
“When I went to Beaver Creek, I kept my cool and just tried to educate them on what they were holding in their hands,” he says. “The looks on their faces were astonishment and sorrow. They didn’t know what they had.”
Stanford equates McKey’s work to the artifacts found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. He was shocked, however, to learn that McKey didn’t have the proper wildlife permits. He disagrees with McKey’s statement that endangered species laws weren’t meant for people like him. It’s the market that fuels the trade in rare animal parts, Stanford says.
“If Jack is a person using illegal animal parts for any reason, he is the problem. I think Jack ought to see that part of it,” he says.
“His appearance is that of a good old southern Georgia boy. But inside there’s this other person: a tremendous artist, and a very intelligent man.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo