Styles and popular items
Alaska Natives still practice the traditional art of basket weaving and use baskets for gathering and storage. In 1778, Captain James Cook reported seeing “baskets of grass that are both strong and beautiful” in Alaska. The Aleuts traditionally use ryegrass, a plant plentiful in the Aleutian Chain, a string of islands in Southwestern Alaska that extend into the Bering Sea. They often craft their baskets in three different styles named after the islands where they originate – Attu, Unalaska and Atka. The differences are subtle, but are evident in the overall shape and the stem and knob that make up the handle. The Aleuts often construct baskets with a twining technique utilizing thread-sized strands of grass. When woven tightly, a finished basket can have the texture of fine linen and can hold water. Aleuts in other parts of the state make baskets from materials such as birch bark and birch root.
Athabascan Natives have made beautifully beaded clothing and other decorative objects for centuries. Originally, they used seeds, carved wooden beads, shells and quills. When the Europeans introduced glass beads, Alaska Natives bartered and traded for them. They incorporated elaborate beaded designs into traditional garments made out of hides and used the glass beads to accent moccasins, boots and blankets.
Ivory carvings are some of the most popular Alaska keepsakes. Traditionally, the Inupiat Eskimos of the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea regions have hunted walrus for meat and harvested their skins and tusks for clothing and crafts. The walrus is not an endangered species.
When shopping for ivory, be aware that federal regulations stipulate that only Alaska Natives can possess ivory that has not been carved or transformed into art. However, ivory can be sold after it is handcrafted. In addition to walrus tusk, some carved items are made of fossil or mineralized ivory from the tusks of walrus and prehistoric mammoths and mastodons.
Qiviut ("kiv-ee-ute") is the soft underwool from musk ox that is shed naturally each year during the spring months. It is eight times warmer than wool and extraordinarily lightweight. Approximately 250 Alaska Native women from remote coastal villages of Alaska own an Alaska co-op, called Oomingmak, which has been producing items with qiviut since 1969. They knit each item by hand. Each village has a signature pattern inspired by traditional village life and Eskimo culture.
The co-op’s gift shop sells items that are 100 percent qiviut in their natural color – a grayish brown. Unlike wool, qiviut will not shrink and can last for many years if hand-washed with mild detergent.
While there is a rich history of traditional Alaska Native art, some current artists express themselves with markedly modern mediums and designs. Many Alaska galleries have examples of multimedia sculptures, paintings, art prints and contemporary jewelry created by Alaska Native artists.
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