Monday, November 8, 2010

Basket Making with Julia

This morning I got my weekly update from King Salmon, AK... in the form of the weekly letter from Julia (she sends a weekly email everyone at once about what's been going on in her life during the past week).

Some of you know Julia, some have only heard of her from me. Julia was a terrific mentor to me while I was at Mount Rainier National Park. She and I have both moved on for now; we're both up here in Alaska (although several hundred miles apart). She's a good writer and I enjoy getting these letters. Today's letter hit on a key concept: work. How we approach it, how we learn and how we help others to do their best. This is part of what she wrote:

King Salmon may not have many people in it, but it has plenty of infrastructure left over from the heyday of the military presence. This includes a large building housing a branch of the University of Alaska, known as Southwest Alaska Vocational and Education Center (SAVEC). Through grants and tuition, teachers are brought in and housed at SAVEC for a variety of classes.

Southwestern Alaska is famous for grass basketry. Lucy flew with her husband Joe from Togiak to teach us her form of basket-making.

Lucy is a Yupik speaker, and her English is heavily accented with hesitant consonants. She tried to teach us a few words from her language. I found it difficult to duplicate her pronunciation: Yupik has a number of sounds that English lacks. “Quyana,” for instance, the word for “thank you,” is said something like “koo-YA-na,” but with the “koo” deep in the throat and much gentler.

Her manner, too, was gentle—very unlike some of my classmates who rapidly ran her over with their own chatter. The cultural contrast was very marked. It often seems to me that people of my own culture need to constantly tell others about themselves (I am guilty of this myself too often). We are poor listeners on the whole.

There is also a tendency in mainstream Americans to reassure themselves by sticking with what they already know. Conversation ran to raising kids, the local doings at the school and in the community, building houses, the rising cost of electricity and airplane tickets, words in the local dialect (different from Lucy’s Yupik).

Lucy gave us an explanation of basket making while we waited for our grass to soften in warm water, and showed us a number of baskets and other items she had brought. There was a rattle, an “Eskimo yo-yo” (a toy with two balls on the ends of unevenly matched cords, played by making each ball circle in opposite directions), and a small ball in addition to baskets, to show us the variety of things that could be made. The baskets ranged from about the size of a large thimble to larger than a softball, most with lids.

Although we would be learning how to use grass, other materials, from raffia to strips of plastic rice bags, could be used. For colored designs, dyed grass or seal intestine (scraped and dried, translucent, and crackly as paper) are added.

It wasn’t easy to get much instruction with the constant interruptions of the other women in the class. We grasped the basics enough to strip our grass blades and get started. We had Friday evening, 9-5 on Saturday, and 9-2 on Sunday; and quickly discovered that sewing baskets with grass is a time-consuming activity. I finished a small basket and made a lid for it by Saturday afternoon, at least half a day ahead of the rest. By now Lucy was sewing her own basket, and I could sit and watch her.

It was watching Lucy that made me realize I had made my entire first basket incorrectly. Although she had walked around the room looking at our work, all she had ever said was, “Wow! Look at that…” in her soft tones, smiling at each of us. Working on my second basket, taking breaks to watch Lucy more closely, I pondered this lack of correction.

An explanation arrived later in the form of a story. When asked about what her own first basket had looked like, she said that the centers were showing (the strands around which a flattened piece of grass is wound); but that her grandmother said it was wonderful anyway. Ahhh… teaching by encouragement, not by criticism, is a very different style from what most of us are used to. And there is a much greater responsibility placed on the student: to learn well, one must listen well and watch closely.

When I look at my two little baskets now, I remember that lesson: watch, and learn. Model your work after the work you admire. Pay attention.

Pay attention is the same message delivered by the world around us. I try to walk outside every day, and the faster I can empty my head of idle chatter and pointless worry, the more I enjoy the walk and the more I see. Yesterday evening, for example, I went out shortly before dark. The small amount of snow lying on the ground, left for days in the cold without melting, is dry and squeaky. I make such a racket walking through it that I was unable to hear anything but myself. I stopped to examine the view of King Salmon Creek from atop the bluff; and once I was still, heard a surprising amount of noise from below. At first, I thought some large animal was thrashing its way through the brush. Then I realized I was hearing the ice on the creek being moved by the current: snapping, cracking, and gurgling.

Julia always gives me something to think about. Besides the fact that I want to learn basketry.


  1. Tell your friend Julia, "Thank you for the lesson in cultural differences and how to be a better artisan. Keep your mouth shut, open your eyes and ears."

  2. Jo Dell, that's exactly how I felt!