Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
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The Sheldon Jackson Museum August artifact of the month is a bentwood bucket (SJ-II-Y-101). The bucket is a beautifully constructed example of a utilitarian container traditionally found in Yupiit and Inupiat homes. It showcases a woodworking technique employed by many indigenous peoples in Alaska.
The artifact of the month is made of two pieces of wood: a steam bent 8 ¾” high piece for the wall and a base piece with a cut interior edge for friction fitting the pieces together. The wall is sewn together with two lines of root (?) stitching. The bucket features a plain ivory handle, attached with leather thongs possibly made of seal hide.
We believe Sheldon Jackson collected the bucket from Northwest Alaska based on an inscription on the exterior. The handwritten script reads “Eskimo Box, 1890/ Buckland River, Arctic Ocean/ Presented by Sheldon Jackson.” The Buckland River, called Kaŋiq in Inupiaq, is a stream approximately sixty-five miles long that flows northwest to the Chukchi Sea at Eschscholtz Bay near Selawik. The bucket may have come from the village of Buckland or one of the five locations Buckland has occupied in recent history.
Bentwood and steam-bent objects are found across Alaska, including among the Athabascan, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Unangan, Yupiit, and Inupiat. Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Northwest Coast peoples have made chests, boxes, bowls, drums, and canoes using bentwood techniques. Athabascans have employed the practice of bending wood to make snowshoes, drums, masks, spoons, and containers. Unangax traditionally bend wood to create ceremonial hats, hunting visors, containers, and baidarkas. Yup’ik and Inupiaq bentwood and steam-bent wood objects include bowls, ladles, dippers, cups, toolboxes, trinket boxes, snuff boxes, hunting visors, mask hoops, kayak and umiak frames, trays, dippers, sleds, tubs, and buckets like the August artifact of the month.
Yup’ik and Inupiaq buckets and tubs of various sizes were traditionally used for holding water and other liquids, blubber, flesh, entrails, and berries; for chamber pots; and for catching drips of snow. According to John Murdoch’s “The Point Barrow Eskimo,” steam-bent containers in northern Alaska were typically constructed with fir when available and whalebone or baleen if wood was scarce. Mixed grain driftwood was desirable for its strength and pliability and preferred over straight grain wood. Wood or baleen was steam bent around a circular or oval hardwood or tree stump base. Ends were sewn together, sometimes with narrow strips of baleen and sometimes root, and fitted to create a watertight vessel. Steam bending usually took place in the qasgiq or mens’ community house during steam or fire baths.
Contemporary artists still bend and steam bend wood, but community learning opportunities have been limited in recent decades. In the 1980s, an Institute of Alaska Native Arts (IANA) survey found that few Native artists were working in the medium, but many were interested in learning about it. At the suggestion of artist and IANA board member Jim Schoppert, the Institute hosted two bentwood construction symposia for contemporary artists, including many Alaska Native artists, to learn the technique and share ideas.
The first symposium was held in May 1988. Fifteen artists attended, including Fred Anderson (Unangan), John Bartlett, Kathleen Carlo (Koyukon Athabascan), Rose Atuk Fosdick (Inupiaq), James Grant (Athabascan), Norman Jackson (Tlingit), Glenda Lindley, Harvey Pootoogooluk (Inupiaq), Lisa Rogers, Bert Ryan (Tlingit & Haida), Rick Seeganna (Inupiaq), Ronald W. Senungetuk (Inupiq), and Gertrude Svarny (Unangan). Many of the participants were bending wood for the first time at this gathering. IANA arranged a second symposium in September 1989. The second session included Larry Ahvakana (Inupiaq), Andrew Gronholdt (Unangan), John Hoover (Unangan), Harry Calkins, Melvin Olanna (Inupiaq), Frank Perez (Tsimshian), Joseph Senungetuk (Inupiaq), and Glen Simpson. Many artists who participated in these important symposia have unfortunately passed.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum holds thirteen bentwood buckets in its permanent collection. Most are Yup’ik. Many of the buckets and containers, including the August artifact of the month, may be seen during hours of operation – currently Monday-Saturday, 9 am-4:30 pm and Sunday, 1-4:40 pm, except holidays. General admission is currently $9, $8 for seniors, and free for those who are active-duty military and their family (with military ID).
Dickey, Terry P., et al. (1990) Bending Tradition. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Museum.
Bureau of Ethnology. (1892). Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition. Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. 1887-88. Washington: Government Printing Office.
 Elephant Point, New Site, and Old Buckland are three possible locations.
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