Language: Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut and Atkan dialects)
chivtux^ “grass basket”
Language: Unangam Tunuu (Attuan dialect)
When you pick it you say a little prayer, thanking the grass for letting us have some of it, and that we won’t abuse it…It’s easier to weave if it is moist. If it’s not so moist it breaks all the time. You have to do that as you go along. We usually keep a little glass of water to dip our fingers in.
—Maria Turnpaugh, 2003
Grass storage baskets were traditionally made to hold dried fish, roots, and meat; other types were for gathering beach foods and plants. Small, round, lidded baskets like this one were invented in the nineteenth century and made primarily for sale. Designs were added using dyed grass, split spruce root, silk embroidery thread, and yarn. Grass for baskets is gathered in the summer on coastal hillsides; the weaver bundles, ages, sorts, dries, and splits the stems to prepare them. At least eight weaving patterns are historically known.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Baskets, bags, boxes
Dimensions: Length 10.5cm
Accession Date: 1976 (collected pre-1942)
Source: Capt. Howard B. Hutchinson (collector, donor)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E417767
Maria Turnpaugh: Wow, I recognize this one. That’s the most beautiful work.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Attu?
Maria Turnpaugh: Attu. Look at that small cross-stitch.
Aron Crowell: You knew right away it was from Attu?
Maria Turnpaugh: Oh, yes.
Aron Crowell: Is that because there’s a distinctive style?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes.
Maria Turnpaugh: That weaving, it’s like cloth.
Daria Dirks: I thought Atka weavers were the best.
Maria Turnpaugh: Mm-hmm. You can’t beat Attu baskets, and there aren’t anymore.
Aron Crowell: Is the weaving technique the same all throughout the Aleutian Islands?
Maria Turnpaugh: It’s the same, but [the difference is] the fineness of the grass. They have the best grass. It’s soft. I think Attu—Atka has the best grass.
Mary Bourdukofsky: You know we tried—with your mom Florence—we tried beach grass at St. Paul. It was really hard, it broke easy. I don’t know why.
Maria Turnpaugh: Too close to the salt water I think. You have to get it up out of the sea spray, kind of up in the hills. They don’t have big patches, but be sure you don’t take the root out. You cut them so the grass will grow up again and don’t take too many from one spot.
Aron Crowell: What are the Unangax^ names for it.(1)
Mary Bourdukofsky: Qaag^ax^.
Aron Crowell: Do you harvest the grass when it’s green?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, in the summertime.
Maria Turnpaugh: Before the inner blade is unfurled.
Daria Dirks: There’s a certain time, I think my Russian-Aleut friend did it at the end of July.
Maria Turnpaugh: There’s different times.
Aron Crowell: Are there special spots around the island where people know there is really good grass for baskets?
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, but so much of it now is on private property it’s hard to get good grass. Everybody used to go all over. But we lost so much because of road building. We lost all of our good mushroom patches and a lot of grass patches because they’ve torn some hills.
Aron Crowell: Are there any sayings about grass or beliefs about grass that are important when you’re picking it or how about using it?
Maria Turnpaugh: Oh, you say a little prayer, thanking the grass for letting us have some of it, and that we won’t abuse it.
Maria Turnpaugh: You tear off the three outer leaves and throw them away. Then you cut down as far as you can, and you take that grass—sometimes it’s that tall [approximately three feet]—and you get a bundle about like this [arms full], as much as you can hold, and you take it and put it in a gunnysack. You put them under your porch or somewhere, and everyday look at them and turn them so they don’t mold or anything. Or you can put them on a hillside and let them naturally turn. But it’s not good [to leave them outside] where there’s many eagles. When they’re all yellow, you take more outer leaves and take one leaf that’s unfurled—most of them are about eighteen inches long.
You clean all of that bundle, then you clean the inner ones—you’ll have a bundle as big as your wrist [of the inner blades]. By the time you’ve sorted it out [two blade types] and split that inner blade on the outer edges, which they use for the weavers [outer part of blade]. And then the center you use for the weaves, that’s the legs hanging down.
Aron Crowell: Split it with your fingernail?
Maria Turnpaugh: You’re supposed to, but I don’t have fingernails. I usually use a needle.
Aron Crowell: So the weavers are the ones that go around the basket?
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes.
Aron Crowell: And the weaves are the ones that go—
Maria Turnpaugh: Hanging down. By the time you’re ready to weave a basket, you have about that much [circumference of middle finger] for your weavers and maybe about that much [circumference of pinkie finger] for your weaves.
Aron Crowell: Does it get so small because you’re taking out pieces that won’t work?
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes. They’re just no good to use. It’s the inner blade that is not hard, doesn’t get very hard. Some of that grass is so nice and soft, even after it’s dried. But it’s hard to get any grass anymore, you have to get them out away from the sea spray, because the salt water hardens it.
Mary Bourdukofsky: The salt water makes it break easily, even after you wash it.
Maria Turnpaugh: After you get it all bundled up, you take it back up and wash it with Joy soap and rinse it real well. And then you can hang it out in the sun. They say if you want to bleach it more, you put it out when the sun is shining in the winter, and it bleaches grass up really good. I tried that once but it didn’t work, but I guess I didn’t do it right. That’s a lot of work.
Aron Crowell: Did people ever color the grass?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes.
Maria Turnpaugh: You could use blueberries and there’s this red clay-like—what is it—ocher. There’s places on Unalaska that have it, but it’s on private property now. And tea and coffee for the browns.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Tea makes it a pretty color.
Maria Turnpaugh: And some of the wildflowers, like the iris, make really pretty dark blue.
Aron Crowell: So would you need to get the juice and soak the grass in the juice?
Maria Turnpaugh: Soak it, yes. I saw these beautiful Hooper Bay [Yup’ik] baskets, and I was talking to an old lady and asked her how she dyed it that way. I just couldn’t figure out how beautiful they were, how shiny.
She said Rit dye [laughs]. I was so disappointed. I thought I was going to learn something new.
Aron Crowell: One of the Yup’ik ladies told us they used crepe paper. Because the color comes off it so easily, you just soak it in water.
Maria Turnpaugh: They used to do that a long time ago too I remember.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, and onion peelings.
Maria Turnpaugh: Onion skins make a pretty yellowish [color].
Maria Turnpaugh: It’s easier to weave if it [grass] is moist. If it’s not so moist, it breaks all the time. You have to do that as you go along. We usually keep a little glass of water to dip our fingers in. That’s why I always let it soak for a while.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, I keep dampening my grass.
Daria Dirks: So how many [weaves] do you usually start out with Maria?
Maria Turnpaugh: Six. How many do you have?
Daria Dirks: Between six and eight.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Your spokes [weaves], are they raffia?
Maria Turnpaugh: You use raffia because grass breaks so easily if you’re first learning, I let them use raffia. You use grass for the weavers. I’ll show you. I am twisting my weaves, the ones that hang down.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Do you tie yours or twist it for starting?
Maria Turnpaugh: I tie it.
Mary Bourdukofsky: I tie mine too.
Maria Turnpaugh: I have [a bundle of] six strands of raffia for my weaves. I get it in the middle and get my weaver, and I tie it around the middle [leaving a short end and a long weaver].
Then I take the grass weaver, put it around my finger. And then I take this strand [weaver], twist it, and take this [weave] and exchange it with this other one [weaver], pull that [weave] up, and then the next one [weave] I pull over and exchange the weaver. And the next one [weave] the same, until you get to this one here [6th weave]. And I take and turn it. I take the weave—I’m starting on my second row—and put the weaver in between the two weaves and exchange. You kind of twist your grass as you go, and you keep this finger here underneath it [flat circle of woven grass] for tension. Exchange, twist, exchange, twist, exchange, twist . . . and you’ve got the beginning of your little circle here [at center].
Aron Crowell: So is it the weave that increases in diameter, because you’re making the bottom now?
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, and you do this for a couple of rows. When there’s a space about that much [approximately 1/8 inch] between the grasses, you add one of the weavers.
Maria Turnpaugh: So, now there’s a space [in woven grass], so I’m going to add a weaver there. I put that in [between woven grass] about that far, couple of inches or inch or so, and weave that in with the next grass. You anchor it like that so you don’t pull it out when you go around again.
Daria Dirks: Mine kept coming out.
Maria Turnpaugh: If you don’t anchor them, they’ll keep coming out, and it’s frustrating. Some people don’t, but I do. And you weave on, and then you add another one.
Aron Crowell: When women are making baskets, is this something that you get together to do?
Maria Turnpaugh: Most of the time, mm-hmm.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, visit each other and chat along while you do it.
Maria Turnpaugh: And then we have the serious ones who do it for money, that’s their job.
They weave all the time, every chance they get. Like some women with children that are the sole supporter of those children, they weave every chance they get.
Aron Crowell: Who did you learn basket-making from?
Maria Turnpaugh: Anfesia [Shapsnikoff] taught me. She was a famous Attu basketmaker. She did beautiful work.
Mary Bourdukofsky: I think she went all over Alaska and taught.
Maria Turnpaugh: She went to Fairbanks and Anchorage colleges to teach and to Kodiak. She even went down to Lower-48.
Aron Crowell: Mary, how did you learn?
Mary Bourdukofsky: My mom taught us, and then I had no interest in it so I dropped it for maybe twenty years or so. And then I went to Anchorage and I met Anfesia, so I picked it up again.
I said, “I know how.” So she said, “I’ll come over to your house.” But I said, “I’m kind of lost, you know, when I try to make it again.” She said, “I’ll teach you how again.” So I picked it up again from her. Because my mom died long ago, but I really should have learned from her. She said, “Oh, you learned it fast.” Well, because I used to do it.
Aron Crowell: You first learned when you were quite young?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, quite young.
Maria Turnpaugh: I remember the first basket I made. I was eight years old, and I was so proud of that. When I think back on it, it looked like it had a bunch of warts on it. I gave it to my dad I remember. But I didn’t keep it up because I had thirteen kids, and you just don’t have time.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Same with me, I had seven. They’re all grown, and you start picking up the things you put aside.
Aron Crowell: What are some of things that baskets are used for—not for sale, but the way people would use them around the house?
Maria Turnpaugh: Well, the fish basket with the big open weave was really quite popular, because you could carry food in it. And they’d even make baskets to carry water. They’d weave so tight and then the water would make them tight too.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Carry water with it, that’s what my mom used to say.
Maria Turnpaugh: And I read someplace that they even used it for cooking.
[From discussion with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
1. Unangax^ is the name that the Unangan—the people commonly called Aleuts (a term of Russian origin)—call themselves in their own language, Unangam Tunuu (Eastern dialect). Unangax^ (singular noun) refers to one person or their language (on its own; eg.., say that in Unangax^) and is also used as an adjective—this is grammatically correct in English but Unangam (possessive form) or Unangan (plural noun) are more commonly used as an adjective by speakers of Unangam Tunuu.
The grass baskets of the Aleutian Islands, so tightly woven that some are capable of holding water, greatly impressed early visitors.(1) This women’s art must have been perfected over a long period of time, although the only archaeological examples (from burial caves) are at most a few hundred years old.(2) The very best baskets were made on Attu Island, which may have been the place of origin for a weaving tradition that spread across the Aleutian chain.(3) After a severe decline, basket weaving is being revitalized as an expression of Unangan art and culture.(4)
In traditional households, grass storage baskets held foods such as dried fish, roots, and meat.(5) Other types were for gathering beach foods and plants. Small round baskets with lids, like this example from Attu, were invented in the 19th century and are made primarily for sale.(6)
Rye or beach grass (Elymus mollis) for baskets is gathered in the summer, on coastal hillsides well above the beach because grass exposed to salt spray is too coarse and thick.
(7) The weaver carefully picks, bundles, ages, sorts, dries, and then splits the grass stems with her finger nail into strands that are suitable for use as “weavers” (vertical strands, or warp) and “weaves” (horizontal strands, or weft).(8) Many contemporary weavers use store-bought raffia, which resembles rye grass but does not have to be prepared by the lengthy traditional methods.(9)
All Unangan baskets are made by weaving or “twining” strands of grass together, rather than by coiling them, the way some Yo’ik baskets are made. There are at least eight historically known weaving patterns, with variations across the 900 mile archipelago.(10) Because of these distinctive local styles, the origin of any basket is obvious to a knowledgeable weaver. Large baskets are woven upside down in a counterclockwise direction, the way that Haida weavers work, whereas Tlingit baskets are woven clockwise.(11)
Decorative designs are added to most baskets, including woven-in bands of color and overlay designs that are embroidered in dyed grass, spruce root, silk thread, or wool yarn.
(12) Silk embroidery thread was used to fashion the geometric designs on the example shown here. Old baskets from Kagamil Island were also decorated with feathers from puffins, cormorants, and other birds.(13)
With increased Western contact, fewer baskets were needed for everyday household use but more were made for sale, as highly skilled weavers created new shapes and designs.(14) The peak of basket making may have been reached in the period after 1900, ending with the great flu epidemic of 1919. Many of the famed Attu weavers died, and only one remained alive by the late 1930s.(15)
1. Beaglehole 1967:462, 1146; Langsdorff 1993:II21; Sarychev 1969:II8
2. Black 2003:161-62; Dall 1878:Pl. 1,4; Hrdlicka 1945:61,120; Liapunova 1996:180
3. Black 2003:161; Liapunova 1996:150, 193; Pinart 1881:17; Veniaminov 1984:287
4. Black 2003; Shapsnikoff and Hudson 1974
5. Black 2003:165; Beaglehole 1967:461; Cherepanov 1988:209; Veniaminov 1984:280
6. Black 2003:170
7. Shapsnikoff and Hudson 1974:44
8. Hudson 1992:207-08; Liapunova 1996:189-91; Sarychev 1969:II8; Shapsnikoff and Hudson 1974:45-46
9. Shapsnikoff and Hudson 1974:49
10. Black 2003:161-67; Liapunova 1996:182-88; Mason 1885; Shapsnikoff and Hudson 1974:51-56
11. Liapunova 1996:189-91
12. Black 2003:167; Liapunova 1996:188; Shapsnikoff and Hudson 1974:59-60
13. Black 2003:167; Dall 1878:12
14. Hudson 1992:8; Shapsnikoff and Hudson 1974:43
15. Hrdlicka 1945:61; Shapsnikoff and Hudson 1974:43-44