aguumaq “coiled grass basket”
Language: Central Yup'ik
This coiled grass basket was made at Toksook Bay by Yup’ik artist Theresa Moses, who presented it to the National Museum of the American Indian in 2000. Yup’ik women began making this type of basket in the late 19th century.
Region: Yukon and Kuskokwim River Delta, Alaska
Village: Tooksook Bay
Object Category: Baskets, bags, boxes
Object Type: Basket
Dimensions: Length 40cm; Width 28cm
Accession Date: 2000
Source: Yupi'k Delegation (presenter), Theresa Moses (artist)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 255180.000
Examining & explaining
Neva Rivers: Taumi-ll’ assirpaa! Tegunerpauvkenani-llu tava.
(That is so beautiful! It doesn’t have large grass inside the stitches.(1))
John Phillip, Sr.: Nutarauvagta tamana.
(That one is very new.)
Neva Rivers: Kuinerraarmiut piliaqeciqnganaku.
(It seems like it could be made by someone from Quinhagak.)
Joan Hamilton: Augum Theresa Moses piliaqaa Toksook Bay-rmiunguluni.
(Theresa Moses of Toksook Bay made this [name in museum record].)
Neva Rivers: Unakemiutaugut makut keluit. Unaken taugaam mingqetulriit keluit, Tuksuq Bay-rmiut, Naparyaarmiut mingqaarit ayuqaitut makuneng allaneng mingqiitulineng.
(These stitches are from the people of the coast down there. Down there they don’t have the same stitches for coiled grass baskets as from Toksook Bay and Hooper Bay.(2) The grass inside the stitches is not thick. They are not large.)
I can tell by seeing these baskets that they’re from Hooper Bay, Tununeq [Tununak], Toksook Bay. They’re the ones where we get all the grass from the beach. I can tell about them by the way they are sewn, they are a lot more different from the other villages. And they’re all flat.
Joan Hamilton: Tepmineng pingqerpegnani.
(It doesn’t have its natural scent.)
Neva Rivers: Makut qaraliini pivkarai.
(Because this was made with decorations [with dyed grass].)
Virginia Minock: The dye.
Suzi Jones: I was told that the Yup’ik word for basket means sewn thing or sewn object?
Joan Hamilton: Mingqaaq.
(Something that was sewn/coiled grass basket.(3))
Virginia Minock: Mm-hmm, sewn.
John Phillip, Sr.: Kelugkaat makut mingqaaraat wani ayuqenritut wani nunamteni. Augkut wani nunalgutenka assikenrularait Goodnews-am area and Bristol Bay-m augkut Togiak-amtamakunek piuralallruut tamakeng assikenruaqluki makut mingqaarqat kelugkaat.
(The coarse grass and these coiled grass baskets are not the same in our land. Some of the people who live in my village like the coarse grass from Goodnews Bay area, Bristol Bay and Togiak for sewing coiled grass baskets.)
Neva Rivers: Elngulriit [the stronger ones]. We have a certain place to go down to the beach—
John Phillip, Sr.: Assinrunilaqait.
(They said they are better.)
Neva Rivers: We know the place where we can find [that grass], because my mother went there. Because sometimes they use it for threading, putting up all those bird skins for a blanket. They use that kind for stitching, my grandma used to, because it’s a short one and very strong. There’s a certain place we have to go, because it’s very strong for sewing.
Joan Hamilton: From his village they prefer the grass from the Bristol Bay area. There are different qualities [to the grass] depending on what part of the coast [it is from].
John Phillip, Sr.: Cali-llu mingqaariqaatarqameng takumni wii tangva aipaqa-ll’ mingqaariuralallruuq mingqaqaamegteki makut.
(When they were going to make coiled grass baskets in my presence, as I watched my wife, when she used to make coiled grass baskets, they soaked their sewing threads in water first before they sewed these coiled grass baskets.)
Making & selling
Suzi Jones: When did you start making baskets?
Neva Rivers: By the time maybe when I was eleven years old. When we starting to do things. We always try, and we do it. We try to make it tight. Whatever we do, we get more experienced at them.
Suzi Jones: And your first basket that you made, did you then sell it? Did you make them to sell?
Neva Rivers: I started to make baskets but never any that good. I never finished any baskets until I was sixteen years old.
Joan Hamilton: The first ones you make are more for learning, and a lot of times you rip it and then try again. Not for selling.
Neva Rivers: It’s very hard to rip.
Suzi Jones: I was wondering, when did you start making them to sell, if you sold them to the store in your village or who bought them?
Neva Rivers: We used to sell them for a very low price, when the things for materials were at a very low price. And when the things got to be a lot higher rates, we followed them up [in price]. Because it’s very, very hard work. Some are made by machine, but we do it by hand. And so it’s very tiresome to get [the grass] and take them and braid them and dry them until they are very bleached. We take care of them, all of the things the long way. And we put aside everything for issran [twined grass carrying-bag].(4) It’s not only for baskets we get them [grass], for inside the qayaq [kayak] and everything. And we can make a drawing and make a basket out of it.
Suzi Jones: Where did you sell them when you were young.
Neva Rivers: First we sold them at our Native Store, and some of the kass’aqs [Caucasians] that used to come to Hooper Bay. Traders came to Hooper Bay by boat, and then we traded them.
Aron Crowell: Have the baskets changed in the way they’re made and decorated over time?
Neva Rivers: They’re all changing, because they have better needles. And the way they are making them, they get more like drawing. They have patterns, make patterns for themselves to make them fancy. They do more as they get smarter doing it. And it’s different from the first time [earlier baskets], because we never flattened the thread.
Joan Hamilton: The grasses flattened.
Aron Crowell: So it’s smoother then on the outside?
Neva Rivers: It’s smoother. What we are doing nowadays, from my age and up, is starting that way. And making it smaller to make it prettier.
[From discussions with Joan Hamilton (Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center and Museum), Virginia Minock, John Phillip, Sr. and Neva Rivers at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/22/2002-4/26/2002. Also participating: Aron L. Crowell, William Fitzhugh, and Stephen Loring (NMNH), Suzi Jones (Anchorage Museum), and Ann Fienup-Riordan.]
1. When making a basket using a coiling technique, the weaver uses a foundation of bundled grass—tegunrit [grass inside the stitches]—and wraps grass strands around it, building up horizontal coils that she stitches vertically with grass onto the lower coil (Fitzhugh and Kaplan 1982:128).
2. The verb base mingqii- means “to make a tightly-coiled, rigid grass basket;” a mingqaaq is a “tightly coiled rigid basket made of course seashore grass (taperrnat)” (Jacobson 1984).
3. The verb base mingqe- is “to sew” and a mingqaaq is a “tightly coiled rigid basket made of course seashore grass (taperrnat)” (Jacobson 1984).
4. An issran is defined as a “loosely-woven grass carrying-bag” (Jacobson 1984) and a “twined grass bag” (Fienup-Riordan 2005).
Yup’ik women began making coiled grass baskets in the 19th century, adopting this style from Iñupiat who may have previously learned it through contacts with Siberia.(1) All earlier southwestern Alaskan baskets were of the twined, or woven style. In 1899, Edward Nelson reported that coiled baskets were made in an area that extended from Kotzebue Sound in the Iñupiaq region to Yup’ik communities at the mouth of the Yukon River, but in 1930 Edward Curtis noted that they were being made further south at Nunivak Island.(2) He said, “It is claimed that [coiled] basketry is a recent innovation, the art having been introduced by an Eskimo from Unalakleet [on Norton Sound].”(3) Lee documents that Moravian missionaries, who came to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the late 1880s, encouraged the production of coiled baskets for sale as souvenirs, providing a source of cash income that continues to the present.(4) Coiled baskets with tight-fitting lids are used to store small items of value.
1. Lee 1995, 2004
2. Curtis 1930:37; Nelson 1899:204-05).
3. Curtis 1930:38
4. Lee 2004:58-59