Alaska Products

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Artwork History

Birch Bark Baskets

Athabascan women pick the bark in June, when the color is like golden honey. If picked in winter, a tweedy textured look appears and the bark is thicker and more difficult to work with. Spruce root and willow are used to sew the basket. The corners are folded and sewn first, keeping all materials wet until the basket is finished. These baskets are made to be used. Excellent for rolls, mail, sewing supplies or dried flowers.

 

Grass Coil Baskets

Wild rye grass grows on the beaches of southwestern Alaska and is gathered at various times of the season for different functions. It is the basis of coil basket making among Yupik Eskimos of the region. Construction begins with a rigid foundation of grass fiber wrapped with flexible weft grass. The baskets are built spirally, each coil sewn to the next. Dyed grasses, dyed seal gut, bird feathers and bird feet are all used for decoration. Patterns and textures vary from basket maker to basket maker and between regions. Grass baskets take anywhere from 3 to 7 days to make depending on size. Very time and labor intensive.

 

Athabascan Indian Beadwork

Trade beads and other western goods entered the Interior through established aboriginal trade routes before the arrival of European fur traders and explorers. Large glass beads first and tiny glass beads followed by 1860. These beads replaced the traditional decorations of porcupine quills and caribou hair embroidery.

Today beadworkers use designs from both the past and present, as a source of income, as well as beautiful personal effects. Beadwork is most often done on moosehide.

Yupik Eskimo Skin Sewing & Beadwork:
the sealskin slippers are one example of skin sewing and beadwork done by the Inupiat women of Shismeraf. Skin sewing is a prized skill. Elaborate parkas, books, and slippers are still made and used today

 

Caribou Tufting

Tufting is a form of decoration used by western Athabascan Indians on costumes and special items such as bags and belts. The craft had been all but forgotten until a few years ago.

The hair is hand picked, washed and dyed with natural dyes such as berries, moss and bark, leaves or nowadays commercial dyes. After dyeing the hair is dried and ready for sewing. About 15 to 20 hairs are held on a pattern, a stitch is made around the hair, and is pulled tight and knotted on the back of the material. This makes the hair stand up in a tuft. Because of the method, no two are ever exactly alike.

 

Whalebone

Carving bone from sea mammal remains is an ancient custom of the Alaskan Eskimo. The holes in the carvings are a result of the natural porosity of the bone. Other holes are caused by nerve network systems. Baleen and ivory have been added to many carvings to accentuate eyes, or for spears, paddles or tusks. Materials are generally from St. Laurence Island, Alaska. Anyone can collect and carve fossil whalebone.

 

Baleen

The 1800's natural plastic, baleen was once used in corsets and skirt hoops, umbrella ribs, and trunk frames. In the polar regions of Alaska, the Bowhead whale is the principle source of baleen—each whale has between 300-600 baleen plates. These plates create a fringe, filtering out larger fish but trapping tiny plankton and krill, the diet of whales.

Alaskan Natives are the only people allowed to whale and use baleen in the U.S.. They also use the prized baleen to make tools, sled runners, bows, fish line, jewelry, baskets, and other crafts.

 

Soapstone

Natural soapstone, used in native art since early times, is much softer than ivory and jade. It allows beautiful, smooth-flowing representations of wildlife and village activities. The smooth carving invite touch, but even a fingernail can scratch the surface. For a high sheen or dull surface, apply carnauba wax to your carving, then polish with a cotton rag.

 

Dolls

Yupik and Inupiat Eskimos have practiced the art of doll making for at least 2,000 years. Medicine men used the dolls as charms. They were a common part of ritual and ceremonies from prehistoric times to the present. Dolls were probably not used as toys.

Present day dolls are made as art objects for sale. Dolls show the cultural style and tradition of the area where they are made. The artistic style of the individual doll maker is special and almost always recognizable. Doll bodies are made of wood, reindeer antler and cloth covered wire. Faces may be made of skin, wood, ivory, sometimes carved, sometimes painted. Doll clothing is made of furs, cloth, felt and black and white cowhide trim to represent clothing styles if the area. Materials come mostly from the local subsistence lifestyle, although commercial materials are used to some extent. Doll making is primarily an art of Eskimo women, however, some men help with the carving faces and bodies. Eskimo doll makers take great pride in their craftsmanship and accuracy of clothing styles.