Western Alaska woman among last to make grass footwear

Lena Atti is master weaver, featured artist on ExxonMobil Master Artist Series program

Posted: Monday, February 23, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Lena Atti's work appears deceptively simple.

It doesn't have the bold flourish of an Alutiiq hunting hat or the girlish swirls of Athabascan bead work. Atti needs no tools other than her hands. She has no pattern, no guide, no text.

Like an Amish dress or a primitive dough bowl, Atti's work is beautiful for its plainness. Her subject is unique - a pair of alliqsiik (woven socks). Her material is plentiful - wild grass.

Atti is a master weaver, a featured artist in the Alaska Native Heritage Center's ExxonMobil Master Artist Series, now in its fifth year. Atti was in Anchorage earlier this month to demonstrate her craft. She worked with a youth class in the afternoons and an adult class in the evenings. The goal of each student is to weave a sock during the two-week program.

The artist series is designed to bring some of Alaska's most skilled Native artists together with anyone who wishes to watch and listen. That's how Atti learned.

At age 78, her fingers are still nimble if battered by a lifetime of tasks. She spoke in a quiet office at the heritage center during a meal of pilot bread and stew. Her gray hair, combed back, was held by a ponytail and bobby pin. She wore a pink and purple kuspik over pants and comfortable shoes. She spoke no English but understood some.

Her Yup'ik name is Kayuungiar. Atti was born in Kipnuk in Western Alaska. At about age 14, she began a study of grass weaving, with her mother as tutor. She learned mainly by observation. Her mother, she said, was willing to teach only if the student showed ability and willingness.

While grass weaving is most often associated with basketry, in Atti's region, grass once was used for all manner of handy everyday items, including bags, backpacks, storage mats and sleeping pallets. Grass socks were worn mainly by men, the bulk of whose work was done in the snow.

A few years back, Carrie Anvil-Kiana, artist relations supervisor at the heritage center, brainstormed with colleagues on whom the organization might bring in to teach Native arts. They wanted to highlight the unusual, the hard to find, the nearly lost.

A colleague had seen or heard of grass socks offered in a Native art auction to benefit KNBA, a public radio station operated by Koahnic Broadcast Corp. The socks brought high bids - more than $300, as Anvil-Kiana recalled. But it was the rarity of the item that caused the center's staff to seek out Atti.

"I know that she is one of the last few people that do the grass socks," said Anvil-Kiana, who is from Bethel. As a girl, Anvil-Kiana owned a similar pair of socks made from the twine of unraveled feed sacks. But grass socks are almost unheard of.

Atti had forgotten about them herself until she received a letter sometime in the 1980s. She does not remember who sent the letter that came to Kwigillingok, a coastal village of about 300 people where she has lived most of her life. Neither does she know how the sender found her, although he or she may have seen her work for sale in Anchorage at the Alaska Native Medical Center gift shop.

The letter inquired as to grass socks - could Atti make a pair? Order in hand, Atti searched her memory for the skill. Her hands found their way, winding wispy strands of kelugkaq, the bright green grass that grows in abundance around her coastal community.

It's different from the beach grass commonly used in other weaving projects, she said. Kelugkaq is a kind of reed that Atti collects in late summer, when it's still green. Native women of her village typically gathered grass in bundles, as much as they could carry on their backs.

These days, Atti's daughter and student, Gladys Atti, gathers the reeds while out walking and sometimes by boat.

"I'm still in training," said Gladys, chuckling with her mother about the variety and size of grasses she pulls.

At home, Lena Atti sorts the grass and spreads it to dry. When it takes on a certain hue of yellow, she cleans it, braids it and hangs it on nails on the sides of her cache house. You might also see this grass hanging on fish-drying racks, Atti said through Gladys, also her interpreter.

The grass can be used right away or stored until deep winter, when the mood for handiwork hits.

Atti travels to Anchorage about four times a year to sell her work at craft shows such as the one at the Alaska Federation of Natives' annual convention.

She doesn't offer socks - they are by special order. It takes Atti about a week to make a pair, working five to six hours a day. She can't guess how many pairs she has made over the years, all for art.

Atti said she never made grass socks for her husband, now deceased. The only person she can remember wearing them was her father. Men wore short socks when working outside near home. They wore longer knee socks on hunting trips because they traveled in deep snow.

The reed used to make the socks is absorbent and wicks moisture away from the feet, keeping them dry and warm. Atti explained that people traditionally wrapped their feet in sacking, then stuffed them into the socks. The socks acted as a liner for their mukluks, or skin boots.

When Atti gave a weaving demonstration at the center, one of the people who stopped to watch was Marie Meade, a Yup'ik linguist who teaches a class at the center. She chatted with Atti in their language.

Meade said she is familiar with gunnysack socks, woven from the recaptured thread of feed sacks. And grass has been used as a loose lining in boots during her lifetime, she said.

But the only woven grass socks she ever saw were in a museum and dated from the 1880s. She didn't know of anyone else who weaves grass socks and guessed only a handful of women still have the skill.

"To see it was really special to me," Meade said later. "It is very rare."

Of Atti, she said: "She just shines like a star. She's beautiful to watch."

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