Yup’ik grass bag makers featured in documentary

Grace Anaver demonstrates how to correctly weave and twist the grass while making the bottom of an issran. Screen capture, courtesy of Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center

by K.J. Lincoln

Her strong capable hands expertly take the blades of fibery grass in between her fingers as she weaves them, twisting two separate pieces together around two other grasses, creating a secure weave before taking the next two strands. She does this over and over again, sometimes adding grasses if there is a gap, as her creation takes shape.

She’s making an issran, a grass tote bag completely made with just one material – cured beach grass, and made with only one tool – her hands. She is Grace Anaver, Yup’ik weaver and culture-bearer of the community of Quinhagak.

“The sea coarse grass from back home, we call it taperrnaq. It’s plentiful at our beach, it’s one of the things that our ancestors had always used,” said Grace. “Learning about harvesting grass is simple. My mother had always done it. My mother and my older sister were basket weavers.”

This ancient Yup’ik art of weaving grass into beautiful and useful carrying bags is now documented in film for posterity. The videos were created in the summer of 2019, when the Alaska office of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center partnered with Qanirtuuq Inc. of Quinhagak, Alaska to research and document the Yup’ik tradition of weaving an issran.

There are a series of videos, eleven of them, entitled “Material Traditions: Weaving a Yup’ik Issran (Grass Carrying-Bag)”. The videos cover everything on how to twine an issran from start to finish with detailed information, instructions and demonstrations.

Issratet were traditionally used when gathering and collecting edible greens, mouse food, or more grasses or anything that you may be collecting while harvesting or subsisting off the land. They were intended to be worn on your back while leaving your arms and hands free. These amazing grass carrying bags are still made and used today.

“Local artist Grace Anaver joined the team as lead artist, under the guidance of her older sister Pauline Beebe and assisted by her younger sister Sarah Brown. Locally harvested taperrnaq (coarse seashore grass) was gathered and processed for drying and curing in July, and grass from the previous fall was dyed. In August, Grace taught Yup’ik grass weavers and learners how to twine an issran in the Nunalleq Culture & Archaeology Center,” wrote the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center.

The Nunalleq Culture & Archaelogy Center, known locally as the museum, is the repository for the many artifacts that were found at the nearby archaeological site of Arolik. There were even grass bags found at the site that can be viewed at the center.

These videos have revived one of the many useful and important ways coastal grasses are used in our region.

Grace remembers in one of the videos how she had forgotten to bring a shopping bag to fill with edible greens that she wanted to pick at the beach. When she got there she looked everywhere in her pockets but there was nothing. So instead of going all the way back to get one, she sat down and started making a handmade bag for her harvest.

“I had forgotten about bringing a shopping bag or a handbag with me. It was quite a ways to go back home gas-wise and the bumps on the trail – I didn’t want to go back. I sat on the sea coarse grass and started pulling, they are easy to pull. I picked enough and I had learned how to make the handbag you use to store your Dolly Varden fish. I started it by tying together the bottom. As you go you twist. The first circular at the beginning is small, you have about 4-5 stiches and it grows, you add more and it gets wider. This was the handbag I made to store my greens that day, not very wide but as you fill it, it stretches. I finished it in maybe 15 minutes and it was about almost 20 inches long and the width was about a basketball size on the bottom,” she said. “It got full (with greens) so I sat down again and I made another one. A lady came over and asked what I was doing. I told her I had forgotten to bring a bag and she offered me a plastic bag and I said I was experimenting to see how long it would take to make one. I finished another one so I got up and gathered more and filled up two. I was able to share the other handbag with my neighbor.”

In the videos you can view the grass bag workshop activities with Grace teaching and mentoring her apprentices with one-on-one interaction and hands-on learning.

“At the beginning for your very first one you may think you can’t do this because when you first start it will never look like a satisfying finish, but that is your start. That is how it always is. To finish one, if you are a beginner, it will take 2-3 days depending on the time you spend on it. Your first one – you get tired from it easily because you’re learning how to hold it, your hands have to learn how to coordinate with how much tightness you want on the twists you make, the size of the bag you’re making. It is always good to begin on the smaller size, it’s better for beginners. As you get used to it you can go to a larger one next. One thing leads to another, you want to do a doormat, a floormat. With sea coarse grass you can make anything you want to,” she said.

“It’s therapeutic. Hands on work is always therapeutic … It’s when you learn and you enjoy it,” Anaver said. “If your hands are good, anybody can try it. Everybody has an art in them. It’s good for the soul, it’s good for the mind. It’s time consuming, but then it’s fun and an enjoyable art in itself and it’s rewarding.”

You can view the videos and learn how to make your own issran on youtube at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska channel.

To learn more about Alaska Native cultures, please visit the Smithsonian Learning Lab site “Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska” at https://learninglab.si.edu/org/sasc-ak. There you will also find more video sets and educational resources for teaching at home or in a classroom. A limited number of free DVDs are available upon request to [email protected] or [email protected] This project is also sponsored by the CIRI Foundation.