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The growth of Native arts and crafts

Southeast Sagas

Posted: Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Missionaries and educators in Alaska in the 19th and 20th centuries were not always open to Native arts and crafts, associating them with superstition or "pagan ritual."

If it had not been for encouragement by organizations like the Alaska Arts and Crafts Cooperative, the Alaska Historical Totem Society, and Alaska Indian Arts, much might have been lost forever.

Take, for example, drawing. From time immemorial, Eskimos have drawn in sand and snow and engraved and inlaid baleen, wood, walrus ivory and bone. When Boston whalers ventured into the Bering Sea in the 1840s, trade in scrimshawed ivory picked up, and commercial inks were introduced to Native artists.

Alaska's Eskimo artists soon found out they could sell drawings on skin and paper. The latter required neither hunting nor preparation. Text included in the "Eskimo Drawings" exhibit running this summer at the Alaska State Museum says that Eskimo drawing in Alaska began in the 1890s when young reindeer herders at Cape Prince of Wales drew on scraps of tablet paper and the backs of government census cards.

Sometimes middle men took advantage of Native artists, buying their work for next to nothing, and selling it in distant markets at high prices. The Alaska Arts and Crafts Cooperative (ANAC) was formed to help market arts and crafts for Natives. The relationship between one Yup'ik artist, Milo Minock of Pilot Station, and Donald L. Burrus, manager for ANAC's Juneau store, can be glimpsed in a letter that is part of the exhibit.

In the letter, dated Nov. 7, 1954, Minock (c. 1915-1996) thanks Burrus for sending him paints: "They worked fine in my pictures," Minock writes, "and I have sent three pictures of Bear killing with the spear, instead of 2 so you can see the motions of men and the Bear from beginning to the end although I painted the hills little different size.... So I am very glad to hear from you that you wanted some pictures."

Burrus also consulted the artist about acquiring snowshoes, drums and dip nets for catching eels. Minock obviously wants to continue selling drawings for cash, but he concludes his letter with details of how to catch eels - as if subsistence is much more real to him than art.

Minock, active as an artist from the 1950s to 1980s, may have learned drawing in a Catholic mission school. He is known for his pencil and ink drawings of subsistence tools and technology. For example, his drawings in the exhibit limn the making of a Yukon River-style fish trap, night lamps made from clay as well as animal bone, and trapping muskrat. The drawings are tiny but very detailed, reminding the viewer of Rembrandt's drawings.

A Department of Interior Service bulletin quoted in the "Daily Alaska Empire" in 1932 differentiates between the carving and the etching of ivory. "Ivory carving as it is commonly thought of today, is a comparatively recent development among the natives of the Bering Sea region," the bulletin states. Carving began "about the beginning of the present (20th) century," in the form of cribbage boards, buttons shaped like seals and toothpicks - offered for sale during the summer on the streets of Teller, Nome and St. Michael. Beads appeared in 1916. Miniature birds and animals, cigarette holders, desk sets, bracelets, pickle forks, salt and pepper shakers, watch fobs and other items were later added. During the gold rush at Nome, a carver could make six or seven dollars a day.

Cruise ships began summer excursions to the Panhandle in the 1880s, and curio shops sprang up to take advantage of the trade. Juneau photographers Winter and Pond sold curios and documented Alaska craft by taking photos of locally-made corkscrews and other items. Another well-known curio shop was the Nugget Shop, founded by Belle Goldstein Simpson in the 1920s. Belle's husband, optometrist Robert Simpson, practiced his trade in remote villages and was often paid in moccasins, carvings, baskets and artifacts. Belle is said to have opened her shop to turn these goods into cash. The Nugget Shop operated through the 1940s.

More than once, Asian copies of Native art have given legitimate art a run for the money. It's difficult for the inexperienced tourist to see that copies have incorrect proportions or colors. For that reason, state programs like the Silver Hand were created.

Certain forms of carving, such as totems, began to die out when potlatches were outlawed. To revive the art of the totem, an organization called the Alaska Historical Totem Society formed in Ketchikan in late 1929, according to an article in the Jan. 22, 1930, "Daily Alaska Empire." Its purpose, wrote society manager Herbert Knox, was "restoring to the natives their birthright in the manufacture, sale and exploitation of their product." All the works of the society would be executed in red cedar, numbered, and registered with the society; in addition, they would bear bronze plates about their towns of origin and "characteristics."

(The article goes on to tell of carver Charley Tagook who hoped to get a commission to carve a totem pole to place in front of the Capitol. Tagook had been commissioned in 1927 to carve a totem for the Studebaker Building in San Francisco.)

A June 12, 1938, Empire article noted that a number of traditional arts and crafts were being taught to pupils of the federal government school in Douglas. Chilkat blanket weaving was being taught under the direction of Margaret Willis, "an expert weaver." Frank E. James, a maker of silver bracelets, conducted classes in both wood and metal carving. Mary Lee, Mary Martin and Annie Rasmussen taught basketry. The wood shop produced boats, and there was also a "fur shop." (The article, authored by Rose Davis, Bureau of Indian Affairs representative, does not reveal who profited from the sale of items produced at the school.)

Early photographs of Sitka show Tlingit basket weavers selling their work along Lincoln Street. Few collectors cared about the name of the weaver or inquired about traditional patterns. Little was done to attach artists' names to their creations until Dorothy Jean Ray began photographing Eskimo artists at work and interviewing them in the 1950s.

Encouragement for Native arts was hit-or-miss until people like Carl Heinmiller came along. Heinmiller was a World War II Army officer who lost an eye and three fingers fighting side-by-side with Fijian commandos. When the war ended he formed a cooperative that bought the Army's Fort William H. Seward in Haines and founded Alaska Indian Arts, Inc. His aim was to revive and perpetuate Chilkat arts, crafts, music and dances. Chilkat carving might have disappeared altogether if it had not been for people like Heinmiller.

• Juneau resident Ann Chandonnet is the author of the book "Alaska's Arts, Crafts & Collectibles."



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