Yupik Eskimo Crafts
Handmade items by Yupik artisans and craftspeople are much sought-after by both visitors to southwest
Baskets are made in all sizes and shapes, from very tiny to huge. The traditional Yupik basket is very tightly woven, round in shape with a flat bottom, and has a snugly fitting lid. Open baskets are also made, either flat and tray-like or deep-sided and bucket-like. Designs are woven into the sides using dyed grasses; moose, caribou and birds are common motifs.
In addition to baskets, the long reed-like grasses that grow along rivers and streams were traditionally also woven into socks and hats and used to make toys and dolls for children. Grasses were stuffed into mukluks—knee-high fur boots—to insulate the feet from the frozen ground and used to fill fur mattresses for sleeping on. The elders still teach that if you break through ice and get wet when traveling, you should immediately begin collecting the grass growing at the water’s edge and stuff it inside your clothes to hold them away from your skin; the wet clothing will freeze hard and the insulating grass will allow your body heat to warm the inside. It must feel pretty scratchy, but it can help to prevent death from hypothermia.
Fur is used to make every type of clothing needed: hats, gloves, parkas, pants, and boots. It is also used to make dolls, yo-yos, pillows, rugs, and the small trinket type items favored by collectors such as keyrings and Christmas tree ornaments.Beaver, seal, otter, wolf, wolverine, and fox are the furs most often used for clothing. The fur of small animals such as muskrats is sometimes used for decorative effect on parkas and boots. Parkas, the long hooded outer coats, are especially treasured garments. Quite a lot of work goes into making one, and may take up to a year to complete. Fur is very durable if it is well cared for, and parkas are often handed down from one generation to the next. They are decorated on both front and back, and may include beadwork, as well as piecing together tiny bits of contrasting fur to create designs. A well-made parka sells for about $2,000. The parka shown on the left (front and back views) was made by the wearer's mother, and she treasures it, and only wears it for special occasions. Today is the first day of Slaavik, the Russian Orthodox Christmas, and she wore it for the celebration she is attending tonight.
Small fur scraps left from sewing people’s clothing are used to make Eskimo doll clothes. Dolls are a very popular craft item with collectors. Each doll maker has a unique style, so much so that the appearance of the doll is a signature of the maker. My favorite dolls are made by a woman from Chevak named Dorothy Nayamin. Her dolls are beautiful. The faces are made of leather, which she chews to soften and mold. People from Chevak say that her faces are so true-to-life that they can tell who she modeled each doll after.
Dolls are made in all sizes, but most commonly are about a foot tall. They are usually dressed in traditional clothing, either cotton kuspuks (a hooded overshirt with a large front pocket) or fur. They are usually performing an activity of daily living, such as hunting, fishing, sewing, berry picking, or collecting grass. Once I even saw one the maker called the anuk-ing doll; it had a small shovel in one hand, a wad of grass in the other, its pants were down and a small black bead was sewn on its bare behind. Anuk is the Yupik word for poop. The doll maker couldn’t stop giggling as she showed it to people; she loved feeling a little bit naughty by making it.
Doll making and basket weaving are traditionally considered women’s crafts. Skin sewing—making garments of fur or leather—is usually a woman’s craft, though some men may do it too. Ivory carving is a man’s craft.
The ivory comes from the tusk of the walrus, which is also a meat source. In the old days, whole tusks were used to form arched entrances to the semi-subterranean homes the Yupik people lived in (igloos, which were never more than temporary dwellings, were not part of this culture; this area does not have the right kind or amount of snow to build them with). Sometimes the tusks were etched with images of animals, birds and fish to bring good luck with hunting. Ivory is such a durable and workable material that one old-time dog musher used it to make runners for his dog sled.
These days ivory is carved into small figurines, which are often placed into tableaux made of wood and grass to create scenes of hunting or other daily activities. It is also used in making masks, which are sometimes worn in Eskimo dancing, and in making jewelry such as earrings and bracelets.
Another older use for ivory which is not often seen today was to make story knives. A traditional entertainment for girls and young women was to recite for each other the myths, legends, and stories that make up the oral tradition of Yupik culture. The story knife was used to scrape a smooth surface in dirt or mud or sand and then to draw lines, figures, and symbols in the surface to illustrate the story being told. A particularly fine story knife, such as one made of ivory, would be passed down from mother to daughter for many generations.
In modern times, beading has become a popular craft among Yupik women. It does not have the ancient roots of basket weaving and ivory carving, as beads did not become available to the craftswomen until the Russians came to
Knitting is not a craft one would think to associate with the Yupik people, as sheep to provide the wool are not native to this area. However, musk oxen were brought here many years ago, and there are thriving herds on
Most of the artists and craftspeople from this area have much less opportunity to make their work available for purchase. When they travel in from the villages to
Every Saturday during the summer, and one Saturday per month during the winter, there is a craft fair known as Saturday Market held at the
The other big craft-buying opportunity each year is the craft fair held during the Camai’i (chu-MY) Dance Festival in April. Camai’i is a Yupik word meaning “a warm and genuine welcome.” While Eskimo Dancing goes on in the high school auditorium, a huge craft fair goes on in the school lobby and adjacent classrooms. Every imaginable craft is there, from sealskin pants to an entire carved walrus tusk. It is truly a feast for the eyes, and can be a hit to the pocketbook. I set aside a few hundred dollars for this event, to do my craft shopping for the year.
A few years ago, the hospital built a separate building to house the Dental and Eye clinics and most of the administrative offices. One of the most gracious elements of this lovely building—which contains the only elevator in Bethel—is the large display cases found in the hallways on each floor. These are filled with historic photographs and beautiful examples of Yupik Eskimo crafts. The photographs here which show objects behind glass are from these display cases. Likewise, the
For most of the craftspeople, the money they make selling their work constitutes their only cash income for the year. Many contribute significantly to their families’ income through their work. I love being able to purchase crafts directly from the people who made them, and to hear the stories of how they were made. It is all part of the beautiful and vibrant Yupik culture.
All photos by The Tundra PA:
1. Large traditional Yupik basket, about 2' tall.
2. Smaller traditional baskets, about 8" and 6" tall.
3. Baskets of varied shapes.
4. Mukluks made of beaver, otter, and cowhide, with muskrat tassels .
5. Fancy parka.
7. Beaver hat.
8. Back view of #6.
9. Dolls by Dorothy Nayamin.
10. More dolls, doll maker unknown.
11. Same doll maker as #10.
12. Ivory carvings; left is a billikin, a happy spirit that brings good luck, carved from the tooth of a sperm whale. Right is a walrus.
13. Halibut mask.
14. Ivory bracelet.
15. Ivory earrings.
16. Ivory story knife.
17. Beaded necklace.
18. Qiviut smoke ring.
20. Wolf fur thigh warmers, tucked into mukluks with beaded tops.
21. Eskimo yo-yo.
22. Seal mask.
23. Beaded hair barettes.
24. Mukluks made of wolf, wolverine, cowhide and muskrat, by Lucy Beaver.
Labels: Tundra Life