Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
Alaska State Libraries, Archives & Museums
For Immediate Release
May 5, 2021
The Sheldon Jackson Museum May Artifact of the Month is a St. Lawrence Island Yupik grass bag (SJ-II-Z-27). Although the maker of the bag is not documented, records show that the piece was donated by Evelyn Snider in 1974. The bag is one of only two Siberian Yupik bags and one of only four Siberian Yupik grass artifacts at the Sheldon Jackson Museum.
The artifact of the month bag is slightly stiff and misshapen, but despite these signs of age is a well-made example of open-work style Siberian Yupik basketry done in coarse seagrass. It includes a braided handle and two small embellishments, possibly later additions – a piece of yellow yarn tied to the rim and a white pearl button for closing the bag together.
Harvested grass could be used for nearly innumerable purposes. The material was traditionally used by Alaska Native women to make bags, pouches, baskets, containers, floor mats, kayak mats, curtains for doors, liners for walls and roofs, floor cover, wind breaks in the wilderness and draft barriers within houses, fish rack covers, socks, mittens, and bedding. Grass was readily available, required no special tools or looms to be rendered useable, and so versatile and multifunctional, that it was highly valued.
Traditionally, among Alaska Natives, the arduous work of collecting and preparing grasses for basketry items and weaving basketry has been a woman’s task. Women collected grasses during the fall time, just before or just after freeze-up, when the grass was pale. They would leave in the morning and be gone all day to collect grass, an intensive, backbreaking activity. In some places along the coast the women so actively and frequently collected, that they often formed trails through their patterns of harvesting. They gathered as much as they would need to have an abundant supply to work with over the winter. After harvesting, the grass was spread out to dry until it turned pale, after which time it was stored. The large collection of gathered dry grass would be placed in a pile away from the house. Grass bundles, so tightly wrapped that they never became wet, even when it rained, were covered with loose grass and matting and tied with old braided grass ropes. Once grass had been processed and was ready to work, it could be twined, coiled or woven.
Twining is a construction method in which two flexible weft strands are twisted around an assemblage of rigid warp elements – this is different than the over-under process typical in weaving. In addition to twining, grass was braided into ropes to hang fish to dry or pull heavy loads. Coiling is widely used today, but was the third and least-used grass-working technique historically.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum has many fine examples of artifacts made from or embellished with grass in its permanent collection. The majority of the grass artifacts at the museum are examples of coiled basketry made by Yup’ik women from southwestern Alaska, not to be confused with Siberian Yup’ik women of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Other examples of grass artifacts include grass socks, grass mittens, grass baskets, grass bags, grass hats, grass mats, and grass dance fans. The plethora of grass items on exhibit and in collections storage is reflective of the fact that many Alaska Native cultural groups, including St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Yupiit, Inupiat, Aleut or Unangax, and Alutiiq traditionally work with grass. There are also many examples of Tlingit and Tsimshian basketry, which though primarily made from spruce root and cedar bark can include grass embellishments in false embroidery.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum’s May Artifact of the Month, other grass, and grass-embellished artifacts at the museum can be seen during hours of operation – Wednesday through Sunday between 9am and 4pm. General admission is $9, $8 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of either the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums
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