Monday, January 07, 2008

Yupik Eskimo Crafts

Handmade items by Yupik artisans and craftspeople are much sought-after by both visitors to southwest Alaska and residents alike. Many of the things now sold as crafts, such as baskets and fur clothing, were originally useful, functional items that were part of everyday life. Before Western culture invaded this area, bringing things like Tupperware and plastic bags, baskets were what people used to store everything from clothing to food. And clothing made of fur is still warmer than anything modern technology has produced; in the severe winter temperatures we have here, it can be life saving.

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 mukluksknee-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 Alaska to trade for furs in the 1700s. Barettes, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings are popular items, and some are quite intricate. The work is hand-held, not loomed.

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 Nelson Island and on Nunivak Island. The downy undercoat of the musk ox is as soft as cashmere, and is called qiviut (KIV-ee-ute). It is light brown, the color of hot chocolate. As the oxen migrate through their territories, the qiviut is plucked from their fur by snagging on the brambles of tundra bushes. The women in these areas follow the herds and collect the qiviut, spinning it into yarn and weaving the yarn into the softest and most beautiful hats, mittens, scarves and mufflers. The most traditional piece is a neck gaiter known as a Smoke Ring; it is loose-fitting and can be worn only on the neck or pulled up to partially cover the head. Garments made of qiviut are never dyed, they are always that beautiful, rich chocolate brown. The one shown at the left here is modeled by the delightful and charming ward clerk of my clinic. Different patterns in the weaving are associated with specific villages, thus the garment tells where the weaver is from. There is a Guild of Qiviut Weavers which maintains a store in Anchorage where their work is sold. They have a website where you can order garments made of qiviut here.

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 Bethel, they often bring crafts with them to sell. The hospital keeps a table set up in the lobby known simply as “the craft table” where people can place items for sale, usually with a slip of paper with their name on it and how much they are asking for their creations. Sometimes the slip will also state which clinic they are being seen in, so if they get called to their appointment, you know where to go look for them if you want to purchase something. The honor system is very much in force, and people generally trust that you won’t steal from them.

The Cultural Center in Bethel is the home to a small museum of Yupik history and culture, and it has a gift shop attached where a small selection of Yupik crafts is available, but it seems rarely to be open. The museum’s long-time curator (and gift shop manager) moved away from Bethel recently, and her replacement has apparently not been found. The only stores in Bethel selling locally made crafts and maintaining regular business hours that I know of is Lucy’s Cache, out at the airport, and the clothing section of Swanson’s Grocery.

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 Cultural Center. This is generally a lively gathering of craftspeople and gardeners selling vegetables. The sellers must rent table space to sell their goods. The Saturday after Thanksgiving is the Christmas Bazaar, the biggest Market of the year, and usually has a huge showing of craftspeople. They bring all their best work to sell, and the variety is mind-boggling. I missed it this year, so I have no photo to share.

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 Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage has a many-times larger collection which is displayed throughout their facility. Every hallway, every staircase has lighted display cases filled with beautiful examples of Native crafts.

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.

6. Another fancy parka, front.

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.

19. Masks.

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.



Blogger Maggie Rosethorn said...

WOW! You got my buying genes a hummin'! (And I hate to shop.) What beautiful items they make. I have always loved native crafts, from the times we would go out West (from MI to WY to visit family) and stop at places that sell crafts. Now I just need to figure out how I can get to visit you on a summer Saturday...

Tuesday, January 08, 2008 12:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"beads did not become available to the craftswomen until the Russians came to Alaska to trade for furs in the 1700s"

Actually they were available well before that. Trade links between Native groups going up the Western Alaskan Coast and over to Asia brought some beads, metal items, tobacco,etc. well before the Russians actually arrived in person. They weren't real common or plentiful and thus highly valued

Friday, January 18, 2008 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember as a child in 1958 being in Bethel. My sister and I were the only white kids in town and my Dad worked for the BIA. In all my life, I have never felt so welcome. We wore our MUKLUKS stuffed with straw to warm our feet and we wore seal skin pants to school. They could get really ripe smelling if the teacher put too much wood on the stove. My Mom worked at Swansons. Loved it!
Bill Woosley

Friday, April 02, 2010 3:38:00 AM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Bill, thanks so much for your comment! I can't even imagine what Bethel must have been like in 1958. I would love to have seen it then. I think the population was about 800. Were there any cars at all then? By the time my friend Henry moved to Bethel in the mid 1970s there were only a dozen or so.

In 1955-56, a white man named Wendell Oswalt spent one year living in the village of Napaskiak with his wife and child and wrote a doctoral thesis in anthropology about his experience. It was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1963 as Napaskiak: An Alaskan Eskimo Community. It is a fascinating account of life in a Kuskokwim village in the mid-50s. Many of my patients from Napaskiak still remember him well. The book is out of print now, but copies are around, and if you can find one I'm sure you'd enjoy it immensely.

Thanks for visiting!

Friday, April 02, 2010 7:56:00 AM  
Anonymous said...

Oh my god, there's a lot of useful info in this post!

Monday, November 28, 2011 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter is doing a project for her 6th Grade Alaska Museum and is researching Yupik Eskimo basket weaving. Any extra information or knowledge you have we would greatly appreciate. Thanks!

Sunday, February 16, 2014 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Anon 2/16/14: I'd be happy to help in any way that I can. You can email me at

Sunday, February 16, 2014 11:40:00 AM  

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