Creating Alaska

The Story of the Jade Lamp

Delegate George Cooper signs the Alaska Constitution. The lamp made from jade collected by Marvin Marston sits behind him on the table.

At the signing ceremony for the Alaska Constitution, a jade lamp made by Delegate Marvin Marston sat on the table. The day prior, Marston had told the delegates how he came to create the lamp from a nugget of jade he had found in Western Alaska. The following is excerpted from the minutes of the Alaska Constitutional Convention, February 5, 1956:

PRESIDENT EGAN: The Chair at this time would like to bring to the attention of the delegates the fact that this lamp that is on the Chief Clerk's desk at the present time is something really special. It is made of Alaska jade, gold, and silver. There is nothing like it in existence. Mr. Marston had that made for himself and his wife, and it is something really fine.

MARSTON: If we have a little time here, I have a souvenir I think everybody would like to have, and to fill in time I could tell the story of that jade lamp and give you a souvenir of it. I have 55 pieces here. If you have a little time I will tell you about that jade lamp?

PRESIDENT EGAN: If there is no objection, Mr. Marston, you may proceed to tell us about the lamp.

MARSTON: In 1941 I arrived in the Arctic, and I met Tom [last name inaudible]. He's been a trader for half a century in the Kobuk River valley, he had a long curly white hair down to his shoulders, a delightful character, he had an Eskimo family. He lived at Kotzebue then. He told me about an Eskimo who was going to make the finest jade lamp ever made. This Eskimo, according to legend -- the legend was 250 years old -- and it was a real legend because they produced the lamp. This Eskimo said, "I'm going to make the finest lamp ever made," and he went away from his village about 75 miles -- I figure it was Kiana -- Jade Mountain is about 75 miles from Kiana -- and he got a 75-pound jade nugget and started back home. It was kind of awkward, and he went back and got another 75-pound piece, made a basket of willow roots and hung over his shoulder, one nugget in front and one behind so they swung freely, and he walked back to his village and he carved this jade lamp.

Then when he died, as the custom was, the lamp went on his grave. It became a shrine, and the Eskimos, as they were going by in the wintertime would throw it a ptarmigan, those going by in the summer would throw it a fish, and this story persisted for 250 years, and Tom had heard this story over and over again. Then an Eskimo said, "I know he knew where the lamp is." Tom said "I'll give you 100 pounds of flour if you'll get it." In the course of months this Eskimo came in with that lamp, and Tom sent word to [name inaudible] of the Smithsonian Institute, and in a couple of years he showed up. He made the remark, "It's too young." Tom said, "I was a little discouraged and the man wanted a piece of jade and I just broke a piece off and gave it to him, and I gave away this piece, and in my big storehouse I'll find you a piece." I told him, "I don't want a piece. It was a great story, you shouldn't have done it, Tom." He said, "I know, I made a mistake, I should have kept it."

Two hundred and fifty years that story lasted and lived and proved to be true, and I couldn't get a piece of jade from that lamp, so I said, "I'll make myself a jade lamp." This took 12 years and it was finished just yesterday. I didn't know where Jade Mountain was, a mythical mountain there, but Eskimos told me the general area and finally I went to Jade Mountain about the year '42, and I went up Jade Creek up to Jade Mountain and I found a piece of jade that looked like about 100 pounds. Now, I don't want to brag, but I broke all records -- Harvard and Yale records -- in the leg and back lift. I had a straight board packsack and I got in in and I could hardly get it up. I finally got it up on my back and hiked back down to Lloyd's place on Dall Creek -- old man Lloyd -- and I put this down on the old bench, and he had a fish cooked for me.

Then I started on back to the village of Kobuk with this jade nugget in my packsack. Then the bridge broke down, the log bridge. I didn't yet know what was wrong. I knew I was getting along to where it was rather tough going, and I thought maybe I was beginning to lose a little of that strength I had, and it wasn't a very happy feeling. Then the screws on that straight board packsack pulled loose, and I had to let it down on the low flat tundra land, and I put it on a hump of ground. I reset the screws, and then I couldn't get that thing back. I began to suspect I was really losing my strength, and I wasn't happy, but I said, "Buddy, you and me is buddies and you go with me or I'll stay with you." I lay down in the late spring sunshine and took a sleep, and then said, "Come on, let's get the hell out of here," and I couldn't get it up. It wouldn't come, so I was still stubborn, and I put the shoulder straps over a little on my back and then I fiddled it off the hummock and it pushed me down in the tundra. I couldn't hardly breathe. I said this is a blankety place to get into on your own doings, but I talked myself up, and I made tracks down over the frozen ground.

Marvin Marston arriving at the Kobuk village post office, being greeted by Mrs. Brown, the postmaster. The nugget on Marston's back was apple green jade weighing 164 pounds (source: Men of the Tundra: Alaska Eskimos at War by Marvin Marston

I was discouraged and despondent, just like we get on statehood sometimes. I was pretty well washed up, and it is no fun to think that at that time of life your strength is gone. So I moved on and I rested by a tree -- I got down where the tree line began a little above timberline -- and I finally arrived discouraged and despondent and pretty well given up, whipped by strength at that time of life that was gone, I thought. I came into the Harry Brown's trading post at Kobuk Village, I put it on the scales, and it weighed 164 pounds. I've got good legs yet and a good back; I'm all right. So, be of good cheer, we will be a state not too long hence. I have a feeling we're going to make it within the next two years or less, and the man from Grand Rapids encouraged me very much. Now, I have a souvenir that took 12 years to make. It is made of pure silver and gold and jade, and it was finished just yesterday -- the man stayed up all night -- Ted [last name inaudible] that lives up in the Kobuk River country. He and [name inaudible] have been prospecting for 22 years. They're a couple of bachelors, too. Sid cut this out by a water-driven saw. When I brought that nugget out, the jade [business] boomed up there. Everybody knew where Jade Mountain was; it is a business nowadays. Half of those people up there are carving jade now -- some of those people are doing nothing but that. We have Eskimos and white men making a living out of carving jade, and it's very interesting how business was started. This jade nugget I brought out, a war correspondent wrote the story and the business started. It's still going on. I have this nugget here to give you each a souvenir. How shall we distribute this, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT EGAN: I've got mine.

MARSTON: You have got yours, have you? This is good jade and there are 50 or more pieces there. Take one apiece. I'm happy to have this lamp here. I think it makes the lamp really valuable that I could bring it here today.