Anonymously donated narwhal tusk heads from thrift store to U of C's Arctic Institute

A 24-inch ivory tusk from an arctic narwhal, known as the "giant unicorn of the sea," was anonymously donated to the Beacon Heights Goodwill Thrift Store in September.

'It's amazing to me that it turned up at a Goodwill store,' U of C prof says of donation-bin find

The narwhal tusk was donated anonymously to the Goodwill in the northwest Calgary community of Beacon Hill. (Submitted by Hesam Rezaei)

Staff at a thrift store in the northwest came across a donation so rare and unique that it is now heading to a new home — at the University of Calgary.

A 24-inch ivory tusk from an arctic narwhal, known as the "giant unicorn of the sea," was anonymously donated to the Beacon Heights Goodwill Thrift Store in September.

It included a hunting tag that dates back to 1978.

And according to Shannon Black, the brand coordinator for Goodwill Industries of Alberta, it was immediately evident that the donation was something special. 

"Our team members automatically noticed that it was definitely a significant donation, a unique donation, and we knew that it was a donation that was unlike anything that we've ever received before," Black said.

After discovering the tusk, she said that the Goodwill team began the process of connecting with local organizations to find a suitable home for it.

On Tuesday, it announced that it would be given to the Arctic Institute of North America, located at the University of Calgary — "who is committed to preserving the tusk's historical and cultural integrity," a Goodwill press release said.

"We were able to find a community partner that not only would further the education and knowledge, but also honour the community of the north," Black said.

Historical, cultural integrity

Narwhals are a species of small whale that lives exclusively in the arctic, Dr. Sandie Black, an associate clinical professor of veterinary medicine and head veterinarian at the Calgary Zoo, said.

According to her, the animal is a national treasure. For centuries narwhals have provided food and income to isolated Arctic communities, where employment opportunities are very scarce for families involved in hunting.

And the hunt is monitored to ensure a healthy narwhal population, which right now is about 120,000 adults.

"They are only accessible to hunting in an aboriginal subsistence hunt that the Inuit carry out annually, and it's a hunt that's co-managed between the communities, the Government of Nunavut, and the Government of Canada," Dr. Black said.

"In order for somebody who lives in the south to have a narwhal tusk, they will have purchased it from an Inuk hunter who collected it legally in the arctic … It's amazing to me that it turned up at a Goodwill store, but also wonderful, and that the store wanted to donate it to the university."

'Lancaster Sound is a very active area for marine mammals,' said Brian Koonoo a hunter from Pond Inlet a hamlet close to Lancaster Sound. (Paul Nicklen/WWF)

Giving the tusk to the Arctic Institute of North America will allow its significance to be appreciated, Goodwill Industries of Alberta CEO Dale Monaghan said in the release.

Part of the institute's mandate is to advance the study of the arctic — and according to its website, "acquire, preserve and disseminate information on physical, environmental and social conditions in the North."

"This is a way to create an educational opportunity in our community based on historical, environmental and cultural significance. We are proud to work with the Arctic Institute of North America to feature higher learnings of what the narwhal means to those living in the Arctic," Monaghan said.

"It shares great value with our Inuit community members and by partnering with the Arctic Institute of North America, we have the ability to serve our region with dignity and joy."

A little bit of mystery

As for whether the Goodwill has any idea of who the donor was, Black said that they don't.

In fact, she said it is entirely possible that someone found it while cleaning out a relative's house and did not know what to do with it.

"It's hard to tell," Black said.

"We don't necessarily track our donors that way, and that's kind of the nice thing; you have that anonymous kind of donation process, which is always a good thing, and it definitely leaves a little bit of mystery."

Regardless, she said that the thrift store is grateful that someone did pass it on.

"We can't necessarily speculate about how or who, kind of, donated it. But we are very, very honoured and thankful," Black said.

"It's going to be a teaching point and a talking point for many years to come."

The tusk will be formally given to the University of Calgary in a handing-off ceremony that will be closed to the public due to COVID-19.

With files from Elissa Carpenter and CBC British Columbia