Learning Yup’ik Grass Basketry

by K.J. Lincoln

Maribeth Herron, Lisa Anvil, Catherine Berlin, and Marissa Rankin (from L-R) of Bethel picked beach grass last Friday. Photo by Kelly Lincoln

This past week a group from Bethel participated in a workshop to learn how to sew Yup’ik grass baskets. I had the honor of learning with them and sharing the knowledge learned from my own family of basket sewers. It was transmission of culture from teacher to learner and friend to friend.

The workshop was sponsored by the SouthWest Alaska Art Group, or SWAAG. SWAAG’s mission is to promote, support and preserve all arts in the Yukon Kuskokwim region and across Alaska. Yup’ik grass basketry from the southwest region of Alaska is in dire need of revitalization and new grass sewers of all ages are needed who can share their skills with others so that this very beautiful artform could survive into the next generations.

I was very excited to meet the ladies who signed up. We had a great group representing all ages. One thing that was a common thread was that this was the first time anyone, with two exceptions, had sewn a grass basket.

On the first day of class we got right to it after brief introductions. We had our supplies ready – soaked beach grass or taperrnaat that were harvested from right here in Bethel, needles, and more beach grass to use as the stuffing for the coil. The taperrnaat felt nice and pliable. The needles were just the right size.

Laura Ellsworth of SWAAG provided the support and logistics for the class, which ran smoothly at the Kuskokwim Campus. The atmosphere was relaxed and conducive to learning.

Lisa Anvil who is an accomplished artist was a participant in the class. She sewed a grass inguqaq and harvested grasses for braiding during the workshop.

“I knew it would be fun to learn a new skill and how to gather the materials,” she said.

Our goal on that first day was to learn how to start a grass project. The ladies did great with sewing that very first round on their weaving starts. That is one of the most difficult parts of sewing a grass basket – the beginning, the ayagniraq. We learned how to take some grass, make a knot, and then split a blade to use for sewing those first stitches.

The sewers did great, each person was able to get past that first, most important round. We learned how to end a weaver when it gets too short and then start a new one, how to add tegunret which is the grass inside the coil, and how to keep the project flat. Once past that first round, working on the sewing gets easier and easier. Projects were brought home and the ladies enjoyed working on their grass outside of class.

On the second day we looked at photos of grass basketry from different villages and regions and the different designs and styles. Some of the pieces were made with dyed seal intestine, or irnerrluk. The examples were mostly made by grass sewers who are in their 50’s and 60’s verifying the great need for a resurgence of Yup’ik grass basketry before it diminishes away.

On the third day we went out to pick fresh new grass, which was still in the green stage. The ladies learned how to braid their grasses into mats for hanging and curing. The braiding or weaving is more of a form of twisting the two weaver grasses around the stalks of the picked grass. It is another important skill that goes along with the whole Yup’ik grassworks tradition. Our ancestors used grasses for survival – for bedding, for insulation, for floor coverings, to sit on, and for wall coverings. It was a very important part of the Yup’ik culture.

We learned the correct way to hold the grass while braiding it, keeping it tight, and how to add new weavers. We also viewed a youtube video made by the Smithsonian Institution that documents how to harvest and braid grass. Thank you to the folks in Quinhagak for the tutorial and to the Smithsonian Institution.

“I learned how to tupik (braid) the grass after we picked it. I’ve never picked grass before and I was so proud to pick the grass and tupik it and get it ready to hang,” said Maribeth Herron who was a participant in the class. “I learned the traditional ways (of working with grass).”

When learning a new skill there is a period of time when everything feels awkward and difficult and the items you are working with don’t seem to want to cooperate. Learning to braid grass and to sew grass can be this way but with practice and lots of hands on learning the goal can be accomplished. And we did – everyone was patient and responsive to instruction.

“I used to see others working with grass back home…and I’ve always wanted to make my own,” said Catherine Berlin who is originally from Kasigluk. “This was very fun to learn.”

The green grasses will soon lose their chlorophyll and turn yellow. When that time comes the plan is to go out again and harvest more, right here in Bethel.