Carangllugnek Piliat [Things Made of Grass]
by Sara McNamara
2018 Graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture
University of Delaware
Mabel and Harley McKeague owned this basket along with a range of other Yup’ik-made baskets, dolls, and clothing. The McKeagues amassed their collection in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the early years of Alaskan statehood. They were employed by the Alaska Department of Health and Welfare to conduct a census survey of Yup’ik communities. During their years in Alaska, the McKeagues, especially Harley, visited many Yup’ik communities and recorded general demographic information. The McKeagues supplemented these written records
[i] The author was unable to contact Elizabeth Amos Spud, though it seems likely that she is still alive and living in Mekoryuk. An attempt at contact was made using the Native Village of Mekoryuk’s official website as an intermediary, but there was no response in time for inclusion in this article and the associated exhibition at the University of Delaware. The author approached this subject with the utmost respect and takes responsibility for any incorrect assumptions that may have been made as a result of this lack of consultation with Spud or one of her descendants.
[ii] Mabel McKeague, photograph slide annotations, Mabel and Harley McKeague Archive, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.
The archival materials also shed light on the McKeagues’ relationships with various Yup’ik individuals. While on field visits to different Yup’ik villages, the McKeagues commissioned or purchased objects made by Native individuals, including baskets. Harley McKeague sometimes included information about his purchases in correspondences with his wife, revealing how and why non-Native people purchased Yup’ik-made objects. In one of his letters to Mabel, Harley mentioned his purchase of seven baskets, stating “I bought 5 baskets from Julia K. Polk. … Then Mrs. Dock ‘Elsie’s Mother’ came in with three baskets so I bought 2 more for $5.00 each. That should do it. … Now that I have all the baskets we need.”[i] Harley visited Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island several times, which allowed him the opportunity to purchase items from residents. The McKeagues likely purchased Elizabeth Amos Spud’s basket during a visit to Mekoryuk.
Harley McKeague wrote descriptive observations that reflect common assumptions about the Alaskan environment. On a visit to Meykoryuk in February 1964, Harley McKeague wrote:
Nunivak Island is another Bering Sea island of volcanic origin, it is approximiately [sic] 65 miles long and 45 miles wide. The terrain consists of gentle slopes that descend from a few scattered, sharp peaks or volcanic vents. About the center of the island is dominated by Mt. Roberts, a volcanic peak 1,675 feet high with a breached crater at the top. … The island is essentially baren [sic] except for the usual tundra vegetation of small plants and mosses.[ii]
While Harley McKeague poetically described the geologic landscape, he did a great disservice to the plant life and greater ecology of Nunivak Island, which is not barren. There are dozens of endemic plants on the island, many of which have dietary, medicinal, and utilitarian uses.[iii]
[i] Harley McKeague, letter to Mabel McKeague, July 20, 1962, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.
[ii] Harley McKeague, “Mekoryuk,” February 11, 1964, Mabel and Harley McKeague Archive, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.
[iii]Dennis Griffin, “Contributions to the Enthnobotany of the Cup’it Eskimo, Nunivak Island, Alaska,” Journal of Ethnobotany 11, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 91-127.
Both McKeagues appreciated the artistry of Yup’ik baskets. Mabel decorated their shared office with baskets they purchased. In a letter to her mother, Mabel McKeague wrote, “Have our office all settled now and it looks nice. I put up some of my Eskimo baskets and things we have collected and it added a decorative touch.”[i] When the McKeagues left Alaska and retired to Florida, they continued to display their baskets as decorative objects (fig. 3a-b). The collection and display of Indigenous baskets by non-Native people is part of a longer history of “casastromania,” or basket collecting fever, which swept across North America in the late nineteenth century.[ii]
The mingqaat (coiled baskets) made by Yupiit are an example of how Native peoples created new art objects for sale. Mingqaat are typically round, squat baskets with a somewhat conical knobbed lid (fig. 4). This shape derived from popular and collected container forms present in nineteenth-century ladies’ home journals.[iii] Coiled basket making in Yup’ik communities developed following the colonial incursion of Moravian missionaries to Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region in the late 1880s. They encouraged the wide-scale production of these baskets specifically for an outside market. These baskets were—and are—commonly sold in tourist shops. Thus, basket making emerged from a troubled legacy of colonialism as a positive source of wage earning. These objects became an integral part of the Yup’ik economy, particularly following the changing settlement practices that emerged from colonial interactions, such as the collapse of the fur trade and federal government policies like mandated schooling.
[i] Mabel McKeague, letter to her mother, October 17, 1962. University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.
[ii] For more information about the history of collecting Native American baskets see Sherrie Smith-Ferri, “The Development of the Commercial Market for Pomo Indian Baskets,” Expedition 40, no. 1 (1998): 15-22 and Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh and William A. Turnbaugh, Indian Baskets (West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd.,1986).
[iii] Marvin Cohodas, “Elizabeth Hickox and Karuk Basketry: A Case Study in Debates on Innovation and Paradigms of Authenticity,” in Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, edited by Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 150.
Elizabeth Amos Spud is a member of the Mekoryuk community, which is the only village that is occupied year-round on Nunivak Island.[i] Spud probably learned how to make baskets from her mother, Isabelle Amos, who was an accomplished basket maker. Isabelle Amos, like many Yup’ik woman, gathered the tundra grass used to make baskets in the time between the hunting and fishing seasons.[ii] Missaq (Frank Andrew Sr.), a Yup’ik elder, recalled many aspects of Yup’ik village life including the practice of carangllugna quyurcarnaq, or gathering grass:
Every day when the weather was good, women went out and gathered various types of grass that they would work on later. Many women would leave in the morning, and they were gone all day. They’d finally come home in the evening. You couldn’t tell they were people as they were coming home because their upper bodies were covered with grass that they were carrying [on their backs]. They would stop and sit to rest. You could only see their legs and their lower bodies, but their upper bodies were covered and didn’t resemble people.[iii]
Gathering grass was a deeply embedded communal activity that bonded women in the village.[iv] Furthermore, Missaq suggests that the separation between women and grass became blurred, which emphasized their bond with this material and the environment. Spud likely gathered grass with her mother and other women for many years, building her relationship with grass before she began to make baskets on her own.
Women have long gathered various types of grasses including iitaat [tall cotton grass], kelugkaat [coarse grass], and taperrnat [coarse seashore grass] utilizing the various properties of each type of grass to create utilitarian objects. As Yup’ik woman Mary Mike recalled, “Long ago, people used this grass quite considerably for many different things. They twined them together and made a bag or pouch or made mats and curtains for doors.”[v] Using their complex and specific knowledge of the environment, Yupiit made grass clothing items like boot and
[i] There are many other seasonal camps on Nunivak Island that are used by residents of Mekoryuk. “About Us,” Native Village of Mekoryuk, last modified 2015, http://www.mekoryuktc.org/about-us/.
[ii] McKeague, “Isabelle Amos: Eskimo Basket Weaver,” Mabel and Harley McKeague Archive, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press.
[iii] Miisaq (Frank Andrew Sr.), Paitarkiutenka: My Legacy to You, translated by Alice Rearden and Marie Meade and edited by Ann Fienup-Riordan (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2008) 185.
[iv] Molly Lee, “Weaving Culture: The Many Dimensions of the Yup’ik Eskimo Mingqaaq,” Etudes/Inuit/Studies 28, no. 1 (2004).
[v] Anne Fienup-Riordan, Yuungnaqpiallerput: They Way We Genuinely Live: Mosterworks of Yup’ik Science and Survival, (Seatlle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007) 220.
mitten liners. These objects take advantage of the natural wicking and insulating properties of grass in order to protect extremities in cold conditions.[i]
The variety of carrying baskets made by past Yupiit have impressed contemporary Yup’ik individuals; as is the case with Missaq, who said:
They made the grass into ikaraliitet [grass kayak mats], asguilitat [grass windbreaks], as issratet [grass carrying bags], and kalngat [storage bags]. They used tall cotton grass with coarse seashore grass and twined them into things like that. And [women] used them as kellarviit [bags or pouches] and filled them with the tools they used. All [twined grass containers] had names, and they even called them paimikun ayagut and ukiqlaat [loosely twined, open-weave bags]. I never understood all the names they used for women’s twined grass bags, pouches, and containers.[ii]
An issran, or a utilitarian basket, is made by loosely twining grass to create a flexible, open-weave structure (fig. 5). Issratet are made with a weaving technique. A foundation of grass radiating from the base acts as the warp strands, and women wrap and twist the weft strands of grass horizontally around the warp.[iii] Mabel McKeague photographed Edna Mathlaw creating an issran while on a field visit (fig. 6). These grass bags used for carrying and storing objects were ubiquitous in Yup’ik households for generations.
In contrast, mingqaat (singular mingqaaq), or coiled baskets like the one made by Elizabeth Amos Spud, are part of a later basket-making tradition. The term mingqaat is derived from the Yupik word minqe-, which means to sew.[iv] The coiled baskets are in fact made with a sewing technique rather than a weaving technique. To construct a coiled basket, the maker starts with a bundle of grass stems wrapped with a grass thread. She then punches a hole in the bundle through which the grass thread is passed to connect the concentric coils.[v]
The form and design of mingqaat appealed to a non-Native market more than the utilitarian issratet. The sewing technique used for making mingqaat meant that the baskets could be more easily decorated than issratet. Dyed grass, dyed seal gut, tufts of fur, or strips of fabric could be used to create colorful designs. Spud used dyed grass to create her insects. Each color change in the design meant that a new sewing material was introduced, which increased the effort in the making process. Spud used at least five different colors in her design, but she limited the color changes within a row. As an inexperienced basket maker, Spud likely employed this strategy to simplify the making process while creating a bold and colorful design that is still enchanting today.
Yup’ik women reinforce their connection to the environment through basket making, which is currently the only large-scale use of beach grass. Previously, objects made from grass were vital technologies that allowed Yupiit to successfully live in the sub-Arctic environment. While mingqaat were not made for use in Yup’ik households, they have come to symbolize the earlier uses of beach grass and the broader relationship Yupiit share with all living things in the environment. As Rita Pitka Blumenstein, a Yup’ik basket maker, said:
I make baskets because I want my culture to grow. I also make baskets because when I look at the grass, I look at it as an unwanted person…. When I pick the grass I always think of a person that needs care. I pick the grass, and it’s just a weed, and it looks like it’s not going to turn into anything. It needs a little loving. And then you cure it, take your time on it, love it, and take good care of it. And when you make it into a basket, it becomes beautiful. I look at it as an unwanted person. When you smile at it and love it, it perks up.[vi]
Central to Yup’ik worldviews is the tenant that the world is sentient and reacts to human action. Proper behavior toward other living creatures and the environment supports a healthy relationship. Blumenstein knows this to be true from years of experience working with grass. Similarly, Elizabeth Amos Spud built her relationship with grass and the wider environment in the process of making her first basket. With its insect motif and the material used to create it, this basket embodies a diverse community of people, plants, animals, and land that are inherently intertwined.
[i] Ibid., 231-233.
[ii] Miisaq, Paitarkiutenka: My Legacy to You, 189.
[iii] William W. Fitzhugh and Susan A. Kaplan, Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982) 128.
[iv] Lee, “Weaving Culture”, 57-67, and Fienup-Riordan, Yuungnaqpiallerput, 218.
[v] Fitzhugh and Kaplan, Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo 126-8 and Bruce Bernstein, “The Language of Native American Baskets from the Weavers’ View,” Smithsonian Institute National Museum of the American Indian (2003), accessed on April 20, 2018 http://nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/baskets/subpage.cfm?subpage=intro.
[vi] University of Alaska Museum and Institute of Alaska Native Arts, Interwoven Expressions: Works by Contemporary Alaska Native Basketmakers. (Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Museum, 1989) 17.
Museums Collections, Gift of Mabel & Harley McKeague
“Edna Mathlaw age 61 making a utility basket,” photograph, Mabel McKeague, Meykoryuk, Alaska, United States, 1960-1965, Museums Collections, Gift of Mabel & Harley McKeague