by Greg Lincoln
Each year during the cool fall months the folks in our coastal communities begin gathering beach grass for their projects – for braiding subsistence fish for drying, and for creating works of art. Grasses are a most important piece of our cultural lifestyle for our people. Ingenuity and necessity are great together, it enables creativity and invention. I am always amazed at how these grasses can be transformed into marvelous pieces of art.
Here is an article written by Kelly back in 2004 issue date October 6th, that we thought you would enjoy. It is grass-picking season.
How beach grass took root in Bethel
by K.J. Lincoln
If you haven’t already noticed, there is an amazing variety of beach rye grass that is growing in Bethel, most noticeably along the State Highway between the Fish and Wildlife building and the (old) prematernal home. Women interested in gathering grass in Bethel now have the luxury of being able to pick taperrnaat – the same beach rye grass that is used to make sewn grass baskets and woven grass totes, right in the heart of Bethel instead of traveling to the coast, which can be expensive, or having to have someone pick it for them.
Beach grass never used to grow in Bethel, or any inland landlocked area. It is native to coastal areas from Cook Inlet, through the Aleutians and up the Bering Sea coast.
How did beach grass take root in Bethel?
It all began in the mid 1980’s when U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Mike Rearden and Chuck Hunt (who passed away in 2000), built a steambath on Wildlife Lane.
“In the mid 1980’s, Chuck Hunt and I built a steambath and we needed rocks for it,” said Rearden. “I was out in Mekoryuk doing work, and before I went home I got a box of volcanic rocks and brought them home to Bethel. I turned the box upside down next to the steamhouse and took the rocks and put them in the steam.”
In the exact same spot where Rearden had overturned the box of rocks, beach rye grass began to grow.
“Every year after that, the area of beach grass got bigger,” said Rearden.
How did it get from Wildlife Lame to the State Highway?
A man named Dennis Strom who was the Fish & Wildlife Refuge Manager from 1983 to 1998 plays a big part in the history, said Rearden.
“He (Strom) would dig up a couple roots of the beach grass from that first patch, then he would dig a little hole and plant the roots along the side of the road on his way to work,” said Rearden. “They grow so well in the sand.”
Strom had always shown an interest in plants and grasses, said his wife Janet.
“You know, he’s always been interested in plants and grasses because he’s a biologist,” she said. “When we lived in North Dakota, before we moved to Bethel, he worked with projects where he planted wild grasses along the highways to make the land pretty. He wondered if the grass in Bethel would grow. People would be able to use it and it would stop the sand from blowing. If the grass was growing, it wouldn’t be so dusty.”
“It’s kind of like the story of Johnny Appleseed,” said Janet, who said she tried making a grass basket at one time. “He’s the grass planter.”
The Stroms now reside in Wrangell.
The beach grass is highly prized for the beautiful grass baskets and grass totes and mats that can be made from it. Last fall, students from Mekoryuk picked and cured grass from their island and were selling it as a school project. A bundle of Mekoryuk grass can sell for up to $20.
Many pickers also travel to Platinum for their winter supply of taperrnaat, said Platinum resident Willie Echuck.
“Grass pickers from other villages come to Platinum every fall,” he said. “They were out there picking yesterday – three of them. They picked for about three or four days.”
Mollia Pavila of Kipnuk is one of the ladies who makes the trek to Platinum each fall for basket grass and for dyeing, flying from Kipnuk to Bethel, then Platinum.
“My mom gets her grass from Platinum. They are elnguq – very strong, thick, and long. Assirtut,” said Julia Stone, Pavila’s youngest daughter who is known for her large baskets. One of Stone’s baskets is on display at the Bear Lodge in Fairbanks.
“My mom colors them and she taught me how to do it. Once I made some when she told me to. I made dark blue and purple,” said Stone.
Pavila also praised the quality of the Bethel-grown highway grass that a friend had given to her to try along with some that she picked herself.
“She gave me some that she had picked and dried – qerqulluut tupigaat, from Bethel,” said Pavila. “I also picked from by the highway and I noticed that people had already picked from that area. There is a lot. I made a basket with them and they were nice. I even dyed some of them – qaralirkiurluki.”
Beach rye grass is ready to be picked when it starts to lose its green color during the last part of September and October before it is buried by snowfall. Pickers can pick by hand, puling each blade of the golden colored grass strand by strand. This method results in a cleaner bundle. An uluaq can also be used to pick handfuls at a time by grabbing a bunch and then cutting it off at the base, but a lot of unwanted grass may be included. The grass is not favorable anymore when it becomes stained with little brown or black spots, which are caused by water. Some women spread their grass out in a dry, quiet spot for it to dry. Others weave it into mats (qerqulluut), which are hung indoors or outside. The grass when dried is colorless and stiff. The dried grass can be stored in boxes, wrapped in plastic and can be kept for a long time as long as it is kept dry. To use, the grass must be drenched in water, then tightly wrapped in plastic. After a couple hours, the softened grass can be used to make a grass basket, tote, or a mat.