by K.J. Lincoln
The intricate art of weaving grass into beautiful Alutiiq baskets is being propelled further away from being lost, thanks to the work and efforts of master weavers that have been teaching and passing on this artform to their apprentices.
Alutiiq grass baskets are some of the finest, most delicate and artistic forms of Alaskan native craftsmanship. This artform calls for beach grass, something that upon first glance looks coarse and common, unextraordinary, and seemingly of little worth.
But value it does have, and exceedingly so. It is actually tremendously valuable and very highly prized by both Yup’ik and Alutiiq basket weavers. This humble, unassuming beach grass, sometimes called rye grass (Leymus mollis), imanit and tapernat in the Alutiiq language, has been used by native people since time immemorial. It is a natural resource that has very specific uses in the native maritime cultures of Alaska.
The Yup’ik people use it to make tote containers for packing gathered materials and foodstuffs during harvests. It has been used as bedding, floor coverings, grass sock footwear, and to braid fish for drying. It is also used to make grass baskets and mats.
This grass is one of the most beloved and useful natural resources for the indigenous people of coastal Alaska. It is tough, long lasting, sweet smelling, and abundant.
June Simeonoff Pardue is one of those knowledge-keepers who possesses the art and skill to make Alutiiq basketry and she has been generously teaching and sharing her wisdom with others. She has been weaving grass since she was a child, and has loved it for as long as she can remember.
She weaves in the style of Old Harbor where she grew up learning from her mother who learned from another master-weaver Fedosia Inga.
Early this October you could find June starting a beautiful weaving of an Alutiiq basket, or inartaq in the Sugpiaq/Alutiiq language, surrounded by four or five of her students at the historical and iconic Baranov Museum in Kodiak on Kodiak Island. The Baranov Museum sponsored the class as part of its educational programs and outreach, connecting beginner-apprentices with a master teacher.
The students are taking a three-day class of a two-part workshop with June to learn how to weave the grass into an Alutiiq basket. They are working intently on their baskets during this second session, which are in different stages of development.
During part one, which took place earlier this fall in August, the students learned how to gather and prepare their grasses for curing. The gathering took place on an island called Near Island, which is connected to Kodiak Island by a bridge.
Scenic Kodiak is part of the traditional homeland of the Alutiiq people and the beach grass used to make these baskets grows abundantly along the beaches and shores of the island.
“It is so perfect,” said one student while watching June do her weaving. Her fingers move with ease as she guides each strand expertly and flawlessly into place. Watching her is mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, drawing you into another level of understanding and connection, and imprinting the imagery of this work into your mind.
It is this kind of interaction that ensures that this artform can be passed on from one generation to the next. June takes time to gently teach each of her apprentices one-on-one as needed.
June is also skilled in other artforms including traditional dance, tanning and sewing salmon skin; fur sewing of mittens, mukluks, hats, and regalia; beads headdresses, as well as gathering subsistence foods, berries, and making seal oil.
Kodiak also features the Alutiiq Museum, whose mission is to preserve and share the heritage and culture of the Alutiiq people.
“The single most important grass species for the Kodiak Alutiiq is beach rye. This tall, stout grass of coastal beaches has long, thick flower clusters and long, wide, flat leaves,” writes the Alutiiq Museum about beach grass. “(It is) Used as roofing material, insulation for clothing, houses, and food storage pits, mattresses, to cover floors, as a surface for cutting fish and game, for steam bath switches, and as a weaving material. People weave mats, mittens, socks, cups, backpacks, and other items from beach rye. The roots and rhizomes are collected to make taariq, scrubbers used in the steam bath.”
During session two, the now-cured grasses are long and bleached having lost their natural chlorophyll during the drying process. The grasses are monocots, or monocotyledons, which means the veins are parallel along the strands, making them easy to split for weaving.
Beforehand, the grass must be prepared by soaking in boiling hot water which makes them soft and pliable. Museum support staff is helpful in keeping the grass from drying out for the weavers.
The Baranov Museum features local history exhibits and is the oldest building in Alaska, a National Historical Landmark known as the Russian American Magazin or Erskine House. Visitors from all over the world stopped by to visit and see the exhibits and to also check out the grass basketry class in action on that Friday afternoon.
Most of the guests were enthralled, asking endless questions, snapping photos, absorbing the opportunity to witness the artwork, and chatting with the group. The visitors were on a month-long cruise, the last cruise ship of the season that was stopping in Kodiak. Their next destinations included crossing the ocean to Japan and China.
They came in a steady stream throughout the afternoon, making the atmosphere festive and lively.
By the end of day three, the baskets were starting to take shape, each a masterpiece in the making, the culmination of an effort that began with a bundle of grass and the willingness to learn. The group encouraged each other continually during the basket weaving process and the students would take small breaks to watch each other weave. When one student completed her first casting-off round, everyone cheered. It was a momentous moment.
The Baranov Museum has an extensive collection of basket weaving-related material, including archived print and photographs, along with many timeless basket pieces made by craftswomen from time past.
Several of Fedosia Inga’s original baskets are displayed on exhibit at the Baranov.
“Grass basket weaving in the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak Island is an honored tradition,” writes the Baranov Museum. “In the 1970’s there was a revival in this art form.” The revival is a restoration of Alutiiq basketry that is still continuing on today, thanks to instructors like June Pardue who openly shares her knowledge with the next generation of weavers.