Perhaps baskets were humankind’s very first gadgets, folding buckets for hauling more than handfuls of fruit, kelp, flint, shellfish, tubers, or herbs. 

Alaska’s also held jerky, clothes, frybread, frozen tomcod. Open-topped twin baskets strapped to Nunivak Islanders’ waists were the sole egging gear needed. As wide as bongos, each cupped 80 to 100 bird eggs. Foragers improvised delicate pails at surprise berry patches in 15 minutes. Grass prized for its luster, its vanilla tones, textured totes like exquisite linen. Before Russians bearing guns and iron kitchen utensils christened and renamed the Unangans “Aleuts,” those boiled food by dropping stones heated on fires in water-filled hampers propped up by sand. Crowding over 1,000 stitches onto each square inch, the westernmost island’s Attuans fashioned marvels out of Walt Whitman’s hopeful green stuff. He thought a single leaf spear no less than the journey-work of the stars

Native Alaskan straw wares, then, must be cosmic masterpieces.

Grass basket with blue and red patterns woven in.
Large lidded butterfly design basket by the Yup’ik weaver  Jane Wiseman. Courtesy Stonington Gallery.

If life gives you grass, you make, well, almost anything, mostly indoors and in winter: bags, platters, sails, baby carriers, combs, kayak seats, windbreaks, capes, snow goggles, kuspuks (Eskimo hoodie-dresses), dolls, dance fans, blankets, sleeping mats (even for dolls), thatching, sled ropes, harpoon lines, braids for stringing up salmon, wallets for bone needles, belts safeguarding warriors, and a Seussian stove-model trade curio—too bad “Basketmaker” already described a pre-Columbian pre-ceramic culture in Utah’s canyon country. There were baskets everywhere, always, at spits, docksides, fairs, and swelling the house with their plenty, baskets bowl-shaped, tub-shaped, bottle-shaped, jar-shaped, rough or superb, with handles or knobs, with butterfly, kayak, whale, eagle, flower, or dog-team décors pleasing tourists. 

Grass was the North’s jute, a prettier, eco-friendly Unangan and Yup’ik PVC, that coast’s Hollofil, neoprene, GORE-TEX, and toilet paper. Northwest Alaska’s Inupiat and the Gulf’s Alutiit (or “Sugpiat,” Pacific-Eskimo speakers) equally loved its abundant, multipurpose, quasi-sculptural nature. Old-timers recommended that you stop and quickly cram grass into your boots and clothing if, traveling, you break through ice, lest cold kill you in a rigid embrace.

Absent sheep wool, woven socks and moisture-wicking moss or cottongrass padding warmed feet inside mukluks. Toksook Bay’s Theresa Moses admired machine-knit socks since she spent roughly five hours daily for a week on a homemade pair. Grass liners in a husband’s fish-skin kayaking mitts surpassed bulkier fur versions.

Grass linked women in regional styles signaling one’s place and skill. As the flap of the curtain’d family bunks, it screened private nooks of sunken-floor communal sod houses. The gift in pallets and roofs cushioned against harsh environs from cradle to grave and beyond, benefitting not just the living.

Unangans disemboweled their dead and stuffed fragrant absorbent straw into the void to aid mummification. For cave burials, William Dall reported in 1875, they shrouded the body with “matting exceedingly fine…far superior in finish and delicacy to any now made in the islands,” then in waterproof leather, and then cocooned it “in a sort of basket, in a sitting posture.” How strange that explorers of boundless horizons immured their departed thus.

Black and white photo of women sitting and weaving baskets
Attu women making baskets in 1919, weaving from left to right while rotating theirs clockwise. Courtesy Alaskawanted.com

Tenderly will I use you curling grass wrote Whitman, a pattern maker himself.

In times yet more distant, Raven rayed the Morning Star with a fistful of shiny grass. A culture hero building fish-traps and creels trained Yup’iks in wickerwork. On a mat his mother had plaited, shapeshifting like her raw material, “he became a willow, then an alder, then a cottonwood, then a birch, then, after changing to a spruce tree, he changed back to himself.” Pregnant Nelson Islanders sat aligned with a floor mat’s grain for easier births. Attuans said the sun slept on a mat while her brother Moon Man traversed misty skies. In another myth, an unhappy grass plant transformed stepwise up the food chain into a man undisguised and naked, donning—you guessed it—a wide-mesh grass robe. Whitman’s my tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air echoes this creation story.

“Sea-lyme” (Leymus mollis), the coarse legendary shore holdout and holdfast, lends poetry to the mundane.  Nature without check with original energy, it swishes across high-latitude Asia and North America, Greenland, and Iceland, also called “squirrel-tail,” and “strand-wheat” or “dune wild-rye” for the grainy tassel on three-foot stalks with blades over half an inch wide. It’s the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is and whose root-snarls scrub Alutiiq dishes and backs.

Yup’ik women, if they can afford it, fly to Goodnews Bay for grass like “strong nylon rope” and for rare red stems drying purplish perhaps due to soil minerals. Sheaves scythed with ulus just before winter already have paled. Gathered prematurely, leaves stiff or drooping are skinny or flimsy. Experts prefer the peeled, softer parts. To avoid brittle grass, “You have to get it up out of the sea spray, kind of up in the hills,” the late Unalaska elder Maria Turnpaugh stressed. And “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.” You say a short prayer, “thanking the grass for letting us have some of it, and [pledging] that we won’t abuse it.” Harvesters returning to Kwigillingok on trails scores had worn into tundra resembled haystacks. Frank Andrew couldn’t tell they were people.

Having paid their spiritual dues, weavers spliced aged, sorted stems with a needle or fingernail, priming them for resurrection. A specific humidity prepped the crop. “You put them under your porch or somewhere, and every day look at them and turn them so they don’t mold.” Unalaskans stashed grass also in brackens. Attuans entombed it in sand where sun-generated greenhouse heat quickened bleaching. Atkans spread theirs on the hillsides. Curing grass artificially, you’d “wash it with Joy soap and rinse it real well” and hang combed bundles on a clothesline only on overcast days, because sun weakens it. The whole process, ending in storage indoors, could take eight months.

The Alaska State Museum in Juneau houses a resulting collection of manifold objects, no two alike and every one good, supreme Northwest Coast and Eskimo specimens, 1,200 from Alaska, a third tied from grass. Eight methods have been documented for Unangan baskets alone. Swatches displayed, dated to 5,000 B.P., are the oldest samples ever unearthed here or in neighboring rainforest provinces. 

Grass basket woven with colors to look like a face and placed on a mount that looks like shoulders
Basket face at the Yupiit Piciryarait Museum in Bethel—not a traditional Yup’ik mask type. Courtesy Rachel Liester.

Tlingit baskets, mainly of split spruce root (a few incorporating grasses or fern stems), feature “false embroidery,” an overlay gracing the outside or sometimes the inside. Sturdier stalks radiating from a disc that becomes the bottom distinguish Eskimo-Aleut output. Horizontal, twisted weft-strands fill in these warps as, bent, they curve upright. “Open-twining” creates uniform spaces between wefts, highlighting warps in a Triscuit-wafer effect. Tightness may vary between close and lacey weaves for adornment or, formerly, so that sand or debris could be sluiced off clams or berries. 

Western Alaska’s coiled baskets, not woven, spiral upward from a center knot in a spray of about five strands, the stacked curls sewn together with sinew or more fragile grass thread, a stripped leaf’s midvein. Imbrication, a relief suggesting strung beads, involves folding a decorative element such as horsetail root or bear grass under every stitch. These techniques demand patience. “There’s no buttons to push and no easy way to do it,” says Kotzebue Inupiaq crafter Kathy Ward. For Quinhagak’s Grace Anaver, such focus is “good for the soul, it’s good for the mind.” 

Split whalebone or spruce roots or willow or cedar bark strips shaped related geographical styles. Dyed grass, wool yarn, silk floss, cedar bark, or cotton, beads, quills, feathers, birds’ feet, tanned rawhide, sea lion gut, and caribou hair yielded a range of visual and tactile contrasts in geometric designs enhancing a basket’s worth and a weaver’s prestige. Weavers nowadays interlace plastic bags, raffia (the palm-leaf fiber sheathing Chianti bottles), or unraveled burlap beside sedgy components. Baths in blueberry, red-ocher-clay, alder-bark, beet, onion-peel, ash, stinkweed, coffee, Hershey-bar-wrapper, wild-iris—a pretty dark blue—or crepe-paper solutions prominently tint strands.

Dampening them prevents breakage and eases the work. “We usually keep a little glass of water to dip our fingers in,” Maria Turnpaugh told Smithsonian staff recording traditions. Her Yup’ik counterparts bite rims-in-progress to moisten them and to flatten bulges. Turnpaugh, born when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, recalled her first basket. “I was eight years old, and I was so proud of that,” though “it looked like it had a bunch of warts on it.” 

Group holds big bunches of harvested grass and poses for a picture
Unangan (“Aleut”) people visiting Attu—depopulated during WWII—harvest grass for remembrance baskets. Courtesy Zoë Sobel, KUCB.

Knowledge refined over millennia trickled down female lines of descent. June Pardue, a Kodiaker, copied her mother’s moves with golden bits from the floor. Children reaping grass with a parent valued those memories as adults. Kayuungiar—Lena Atti—Yup’ik, from Kipnuk, at 14 learned the ways of grass from her mother and taught her own daughter Gladys and fellow villagers. Maria Turnpaugh emulated Anfesia Shapsnikoff, a famous Attu weaver giving seminars statewide and stateside to jumpstart a craft fading fast. 

Russian merchant-trappers had plundered the Aleutians and Prince William Sound for nearly 150 years before, in the 1880s; the education agent and missionary Sheldon Jackson and teachers he hired amassed artifacts throughout both regions. Boarding schools and epidemics ravaged the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Seward Peninsula with similar outcomes. Japan’s WWII attack and overseas internment of Unangans plus U.S. forces evacuating others to southeast Alaska further eroded grass lore and practices. 

photo close on a woman's hands holding a woven circle with reindeer hair flowing from one side of the circle.
Yup’ik reindeer hair-basketry dance fan in St. Mary’s (Negeqliq). Courtesy Walton Smith.

Early tourism and Nome’s gold rush somewhat boosted crafts. When the U.S. began to manage its outlier, after 1867, Unangans drawing on Russian floral folk art supplied towers of woven souvenirs, tokens of idealized, supposedly simpler, earth-bound, exotic existences. The Alaska Steamship Company, publishing a collector’s handbook, offered cruises to ports bustling with vendors. By the early 1900s, market-savvy missionaries and traders encouraged certain designs. Small lidded Yup’ik spheres, commodities foremost, could be completed in a day. Cigar and card-deck cases, mantled bottles, non-functional teacups and saucers, and maraca-type baby rattles also sold well. “The baskets we made, we used to trade in the store for flour, sugar, pilot bread, and clothing,” Rita Pitka Blumenstein remembered. Finer, highly esteemed weaves lacked the everyday goods’ strength and durability. New ornaments mimicked those of stoneware or porcelain. Many artisans now favored brighter, industrial, aniline dyes over subtler natural pigments. Sears-order and trading-post kettles and pots replaced some utilitarian weavings.

Turnpaugh and neophytes from afar in the 1950s attended Shapsnikoff’s workshops at Kodiak’s Baranov Museum. The present generation, while fond of wire-filigrees, basketry earrings, and sleek fish-skin-hybrid purses, studies museum pieces for techniques and ideas. The old weavings impress as much with variety as with their beauty and artistry.

grass women to look like two socks
Ryegrass socks by June Pardue, a Kodiak Island weaver and traditional arts teacher from Cold Harbor. Courtesy Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository, AM727
Painting of Alaska native hunters sitting next to kayaks on ice with a grass mat staked vertically to act as a shield.
Yup’ik seal hunters from Hooper Bay on the sea ice use a grass mat as windbreak in 1935. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution #L02275

Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum promotes local weavers and curates pre-contact fragments charred from the cooking rocks. It preserves pedagogical tools too: “If you don’t finish your basket, you’ll get daddy-longlegs [early-stage basket lookalikes] in your house.” St. Petersburg’s Kunstkamera—Tsar Peter the Great’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography founded in 1714, rivaling the largest holdings—showcases Russian American Company loot, some doubtlessly purchased or gifted. Sheldon Jackson bought baskets to which Sitka’s museum named after him added more.

Sifting through leafy and other acquired treasure, in 1891 Jackson published “The Eskimos of Alaska,” his op-ed pleading to save from extinction “a curious superstitious people…decimated by disease and starvation.” Whitman’s own collection, Leaves of Grass, appeared the same year, revised one last time—the “deathbed edition.” His “Song of Myself” praises the single shoot among millions, the sublime individual; still, he explores the promise of person-to-person communion, the support in enmeshment. Grass joined forms a vessel for culture, an apt image of Native societies. It thrives in the margins, bends in gales without breaking. It’s versatile, unpretentious, rooted, enduring: the uncut hair of graves whose smallest sprout shows there is really no death.

Like the Brooklyn bard with the Santa beard, Theresa Moses, though a fan of machine-knit socks, cherished grass, which she deemed “our riches…our wealth.” She always kept some around so her fleet fingers could twine things her mind had envisioned. To her, they were precious things. Above all, she allowed, “Grass lets me survive.” 


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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