An Artifact: chivtux “grass basket”

An Artifact: chivtux “grass basket”

“The grass proved difficult to work with, but the weavers persisted” (1).

chivtux “grass basket”
Language: Unangam Tunuu (Attuan dialect)
Courtesy of: Alaska State Museum – Juneau

I cannot peel my eyes away from the Aluet Basketry collection at the Alaska State Museum. One basket that particularly stands out is a hand woven grass basket in the Attu style. There are three distinct types of Aleut Basketry that come from Atka Island, Unalaska Island and Attu Island.

The basket that catches my eye is not finished; strands of the most delicate grass splay in all directions and I cannot stop thinking about the woman who took the time to weave 1050 stitches per square inch. Each blade of grass for this basket was gathered in the summer on coastal hillsides; not too close to the the ocean or it would be too coarse and not too far away or the grass would be too brittle. The weaver then bundles, ages, and sorts each individual strand, before drying and splitting every blade of grass with a fingernail or needle. Before weaving, the grasses are often coloured with berries, tea, clay, coffee, and even onion skins for yellow (2).

Young ladies weaving baskets on Attu.
Young ladies weaving baskets on Attu.

As shown in the picture from the Alaska State Library Archives, Attu baskets are held upside down during the weaving process. The weaving is done from left to right while the basket is rotated clockwise.

Attu weavers maintain a strong tension with each strand of grass to create a finer weave than other Aleut styles. In fact many Attu baskets are so tightly woven that they are able to carry water. I am drawn to so much more than just the dexterity of the stitches, and the detail of the patterns. These baskets are representative of the spirituality, and the interwoven history. They exist, like all the art I see in the Alaska State Museum, because of the artists’ perseverance.

They persisted in the 1800s when Russians entered the Aleutians with force and brutality. They persisted in the 1900s when they watched the U.S. military burn their entire village to the ground, including the cured grass that the women had prepared all summer. During WW II Attuans were forcefully relocated to an abandoned herring factory, with poor water supply, little housing and no access to subsistence hunting and fishing. Within days of arrival these determined artists began collecting grass, similar to the grass that grew in  on Attu Island, and they began weaving.


 An Attu Elder weaving a basket. Source: UAF, Murie Family Papers (3)
An Attu Elder weaving a basket. Source: UAF, Murie Family Papers

Weaving is a deeply embedded part of life for the Attuan people. Babies sleep in woven cradles, and warriors wore woven belts that offered protection. Women wove clothing, mats, bedding and even sheets to separate rooms in their homes. Even the sun sleeps on a grass mat, while the moon (an important uncle) travels across the night sky.



  1. Alaska State Museum – Juneau
  2. Alaska Native Collections
  3. UAF, Murie Family Papers

Fishy Buisiness

Business as Unusual

The modern art and photography wing of the Alaska State Museum captured my attention for the majority of my visit. The intersection of tradition and modern cultural perspectives resonated with so much of what we have been discussing in our classes. Dynamic and changing, Alaskans as a people are working to preserve the past while embracing the future. Many of the works in that wing captured the now of Alaskan culture with respectful attention the state’s dynamic past.

Many thanks to SLAM for letting us visit and post media about their wonderful collection!

Snapper Charm

Fran Reed, 2000
ASM 2004-4-2

Snapper Charm
Snapper Charm

Body Fracture

Fran Reed, 2007
ASM 2007-31-1

Body Fracture
Body Fracture

I found these objects really fascinating – it impressed me as a modern retrospective on the indigenous practices of using all parts of an animal for food, tools, and art. The charm is magical in its construction – its familiar and foreign. (It is also a mix of natural and artificial materials). The second piece, Body Fracture seems more grounded as a fleshy reinvention of pottery. The interior texture of the artwork simultaneously intrigues me to touch it and feel the slightest bit nauseous.

Both made by Fran Reed who, according to my research, lives near Anchorage. I did a little bit of searching about Fran, and found out she’s a transplant to Alaska. Her Alaskan artwork grew from using fish skins as a medium. She was adopted into the Tsimshian Killer Whale clan. Her work has been featured around North America and in Europe.
Fran Reed Bio @ Alaska State Museum

Art and facts

Tlingit Bear Mask: Carved, decorated and painted by Nathan Jackson in 1973. Jackson is from Ketchikan, AK where he still produces contemporary and traditional art, typically in wood and metal, just don’t ask him to include your pet in a totem.

Generally, I am not drawn in by masks, but in this case despite having walked away from it once and having thought I’s surely pick something fishy, I returned to it a gazed into its iridescent eyes. I’d say it was the lines of its face and the contrasting colors against the bright blue.

I would like to know more about the symbolism present in the piece as there are numerous ways to represent one animal. Understanding the meaning behind the details would be interesting. (Ex. Color scheme, 32 rounded teeth instead of 42, etc.)

Museum collection ID II-B-1683




I chose the sinew backed bows, which were listed as Inupiaq, and Yupik or unknown. The age of the bows was also not listed but they were all from northern Alaska, Canada and Siberia. I was drawn to this display because I have been practicing archery since I was a child. I find it amazing that nearly every culture has bows and arrows, and that bow types across cultures are remarkably similar.

The Not-so-Mythical Reindeer

During my visit to the Alaska State Museum, I was drawn to an Arctic wooden doll from near Unalakleet that was gifted by Marjory B. Major. Its year of origin is unknown, but I was interested in it because of my connection to Unalakleet (I spent a week living and teaching music there this year through the rural practicum experience), and because it was part of an exhibit that talked about the introduction of reindeer to Alaska by Captain Michael Healy and Sheldon Jackson in the mid-1800’s. I learned that Healy and Jackson hired Sami reindeer herders from Norway to come to Alaska in the 1890’s and teach Native people the trade so that they had a new food source, since the land was depleted of other animal food sources. This doll was believed to have been owned by a child of one of the Sami herders.

FullSizeRenderIn 1937, an act was passed so that only Alaskan natives can herd reindeer. I thought it was fascinating to learn how this way of subsistence was introduced to Alaska and continues to be a major food staple to this today. In addition to the Unalakleet connection, I also gravitated toward the reindeer exhibit because before moving to Alaska last year, I actually did not know reindeer were real! I always thought that they were a myth, so I was very excited to see how wrong I was as I conducted my preliminary rounds of research, pre-Alaska-move.

I would like to know more about the child and the family who owned this doll, and I wonder where the doll was found to begin with. How do they know that it’s possibly from near Unalakleet? Beyond the doll, what was the interaction between these Norwegian herders and the native Alaskans like? Did all Alaskans likes this collaboration of cultures?
This exhibit is courtesy of the Alaska State Museum-Juneau, and the reference number of the doll is III-O-117. Thank you very much to the museum for giving me permission to take pictures of this work! Explore their site to see more:

“The Haunted Chamber”

Door Hinges
Door Hinges
Key and Lock
Key and Lock

These large, beautiful door hinges were in a glass case surrounded by artifacts from the time of Russian governance over Alaska, along with a beautiful old key and lock. The wood to which the hinges are attached says that they are from the “Haunted Chamber of the Baranov Castle in Sitka, Alaska 1889.” The hinges were given to the museum by M.C.A Farenholt in memory of his father, Rear Admiral O.W Farenholt. I found this intriguing; is there a Russian Castle in Sitka? Who was Rear Admiral O.W. Farenholt? What is the story behind the haunting?

Castle Hill, in Sitka, Alaska, was originally the site of a Tlingit village, but Russian Governor Baranov took the site by force in 1804-1806 and set up a headquarter for the Russian Governance. In 1836 a brick building was erected, and the Russian Governor lived in the building until it was handed over to the Americans in 1867. The building was destroyed in a fire in 1891, but the site remains a local attraction and National Historic Site.

Rear Admiral O.W. Farenholt was born in 1845 to German immigrants in Texas and passed away in California, 1920. He was a Navy officer who served in the Civil War and Spanish Amercian War, rising through the ranks and serving all over the world. In 1884 he was stationed on the USSPinta in Southern Alaska, protecting America’s interest in the seal and fur industry.

The “Haunted Chamber” was a local legend that seemed to spread in various form in the mid 19th century, but it was published as a poem, “The Legend of Baranoff Castle” by Henry E Hayden in 1891. The back of the door hinges’ plaque includes two lines from the published poem.  The legend refers to a Russian princess, name unknown, who fell in love with an American. Her father disapproved of the relationship and forced his daughter to marry a Russian of the father’s choosing. The princess was separated from her American lover and isolated in the castle until she was wed. The night after she was married, she saw her American lover’s ship returning to the Sitka harbor; she jumped out the window and fell to her death. Her ghost roamed the castle in a dark colored dress until her chamber door was locked, locking her in the room forever. The door remained locked until the castle burnt to the ground. However, the door hinges, the lock, and the key remain.

I had a lot of fun looking up the ghost story and comparing variations. The Alaska State Museum is great; I spent the entire morning browsing exhibits, and I did not make it through everything. The staff in the archival department was also very helpful with my more serious research project. What a fun day!


Snow Goggles and Changing Technology

I am using this image of a stone figure with “snow goggles” to lead off a short reflection on changing technologies in North and West Alaska.  Obviously, this figure is purely decorative, but it represents a real-life scenario/issue in the lives of Yup’ik and Inupiaq Alaskan Natives as well as in the lives of all modern-day inhabitants of these regions.  Due to the snowy nature of the northern landscape throughout much of the year, the unusual angles at which sunlight approaches the poles, and the long exposure of hunters to direct sunlight in the Arctic and immediate sub-Arctic, the Yup’ik and Inupiaq cultures developed “snow goggles” as a means of defense against “snow blindness.” Here are some examples of Alaskan Native snow goggles:



Snow blindness is a potentially serious medical condition known in medical speak as “photokeratitis.” Essentially it means “sunburned eyes.”  While snow blindness can be immediately painful and cause a temporary loss of some visual functions, the long-termed threat of prolonged UV damage to the cornea is no less than absolute and incurable blindness.  Custom “snow goggles” are therefore essential for Alaskans who travel outdoors and who wish to protect their eyes.  Traditional native “snow goggles” restricted UV flow to the eyes by making either a small slit or tiny holes in a piece of wood or bone which was custom fitted to the face of the person who would wear it.

Since the arrival of American settlers, a new technology has been introduced in the region: sunglasses.  An early example can be seen here:


Specially created to lessen the UV intensity of light, modern sunglasses have been adopted by many in the Yup’ik and Inupiaq communities for use in hunting, travel, etc.  However, for reasons primarily of cost and access to cash money, the older style “snow goggles” continue to be made and used in the Alaskan West and North.  Thus, like certain other traditional native technologies, they continue to exist and be used alongside the technologies of the Western world.

The essential difference between snow goggles and sunglasses is that snow goggles change the quantity of light that reaches the eye, whereas sunglasses change its quality by filtering out UV rays.  Like the antique sunglasses shown in the above picture, most sunglasses used in the Arctic and immediate sub-Arctic for hunting come equipped with “blinders” on the sides that prevent UV rays from getting to the eyes around the lenses of the glasses themselves.  Such glasses are sometimes called “glacier glasses” or “glacier goggles.”

In everyday life, many inhabitants of Northern and Western Alaska have adopted glasses with “transitions” lenses for short journeys outside or travelling between houses.  It is only for longer distance journeys that snow goggles or glacier glasses will be used.

All images of artifacts in this post were produced courtesy of Alaska State Museum – Juneau.