Native Arts and Crafts
Not unlike most other aboriginal cultures, Native Alaskan arts and crafts were intricately intertwined with animism, religious ceremony, and utility. Each group worked with its abundant natural resources to produce all the necessities of a lifestyle in which subsistence, religion, and artistic expression were inseparable.
Alaskan tourism and Native Alaskan crafts have gone hand in hand since the first Russian stepped ashore. When John Muir arrived in Wrangell by steamer in 1890, he wrote,
There was a grand rush on shore to buy curiosities and see totem poles. The shops were jammed and mobbed, high prices paid for shabby stuff manufactured expressly for tourist trade. Silver bracelets hammered out of dollars and half dollars by Indian smiths are the most popular articles, then baskets, yellow cedar toy canoes, paddles, etc. Most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook-maker, however ignorant.
A similar observation holds today, especially in the shops selling made-in-China Alaskan trinkets or carved-in-Bali totem poles and masks. When buying Native Alaskan handicrafts from anyone other than the artist, always look for the Silver Hand logo that identifies the work as an authentic Native Alaskan piece. Get details from the Alaska State Council on the Arts (907/269-6610 or 888/278-7424, www.eed.state.ak.us/aksca/native.htm). Good places to buy Native Alaskan crafts are the various museum gift shops or directly from the artisans, if you visit remote villages.
The Inupiat Eskimo of northern coastal Alaska are renowned for their use of ivory, harvested only by Native Alaskans from the tusks and teeth of walrus, as well as ivory from woolly mammoths and giant mastodons uncovered by miners or erosion. The ivory is carved, also known as “scrimshawed,” and made into various implements. Today you’ll see ivory jewelry, ulu handles, cribbage boards, and the like. The use of ivory for handicrafts is severely restricted by federal regulations established to protect the walrus.
Native carvers can carve on ivory obtained from walrus killed for subsistence food, and nonnatives can legally carve on fossilized ivory (darker-colored ivory that was buried in the ground). But don’t make the mistake of buying an ivory piece and then taking it through Canada, unless you have a written permit from the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (www.cites.org).
Avoid border confiscations and other legal problems by mailing your pieces home. You won’t have any problems carrying them onboard an aircraft, unless your plane lands outside the United States.
All Native Alaskan groups used available resources to fashion baskets for storage, carrying, and cooking. Birch-bark baskets, often lashed with spruce roots, were made by the forest Athabascans. The coastal Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian Indians used the bark of big cedar trees. They also made entire baskets of spruce roots, occasionally weaving in maidenhead ferns for decoration. The Yup’ik and Aleut indigenous people of Western Alaska are known for small, delicate baskets fashioned from coastal rye grass. They also process baleen, the long strips of cartilage-like teeth that hang from the upper jaw of whales, and weave the strips into baskets.
The finest examples of the different baskets are displayed in the largest Alaskan museums; commercial baskets sell for anywhere from $40 for simple birch-bark trays to several thousand dollars for large baleen baskets.
Each Native Alaskan culture had its traditional mask-making technology and its complex ceremonial uses for masks. Eskimo mask art and ritual were among the most highly developed in the world. Masks, like totems, represented the individual animals and birds that were worshipped, and each mask was believed to embody the spirit, or inua, of the animal. The masks of the Athabascans were worn by dancers, accompanied by a tribal choir, to dramatize the tribe’s relationship to animal spirits as well as to entertain guests at feasts. Some believe Aleut masks symbolized the faces of ancient inhabitants of the western Alaska archipelago, though these people were only distantly related to the Aleut, if at all.
The use of masks has declined in Native Alaskan cultures, and the art of mask-making isn’t as prevalent today as it’s said to have been before contact with the Western world. But you will see commercial masks in Native Alaskan galleries and gift shops around the North; these bear a close resemblance to those of long ago.
Totem poles were the largest and most dramatic of the Native Alaskan arts and social images, though today, totemic images are reproduced in every medium and size. Typical totemic characterizations include highly stylized wolves, whales, bears, ravens, eagles, and beavers, as well as mythological monsters, human ancestors, and religious spirits. These images are a common sight in gift shops all over Alaska.
Fur parkas are the quintessential Eskimo garment and are available in remote villages and at shops in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The finest of these are custom-made and cost a small fortune; ask locally for the best seamstresses. Beautifully crafted dolls are a hallmark of Eskimo artists who typically use furs and other local materials. Other distinctively Alaskan items include dance fans, beadwork, and handcrafted silver or jade jewelry.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition