In 1942 when the Japanese invaded Attu, Alaska at the beginning of the Aleutian War, the 47 American civilians who lived on Attu were captured, becoming WWII prisoners of war. One of these WWII POWs was sweet-natured Parascovia Lokanin Wright, a 19-year-old Attuan who would one day become well-known for her beautiful, museum-quality Aleut baskets.
For centuries, the Aleuts have been considered “the finest basket weavers in the world.” Each generation of Aleut women passed down their basket-weaving skills to their daughters and granddaughters. The three styles of Aleut baskets, Attu, Atka, and Unalaska — each named after the Aleutian Island from which the style was first created — are admired for their incredibly fine stitchwork and remarkable skill.
Before WWII, Attu, Alaska — the most western island in the Aleutians — was known for growing the strongest rye grass and producing the best basket weavers. There was great demand for Aleut baskets, especially from 1850 -1919 when explorers and tourists began to actively collect them as souvenirs. In fact, in 1901 the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn was already featuring the Aleut baskets in an art exhibit.
Aleut baskets are usually quite small, some are just 1 1/4 inches in diameter and height — the perfect size for a souvenir. Other popular baskets styles included cigar cases and bottle covers. However, Aleuts also made large baskets to carry and store things, such as dried fish and roots, and they also used the rye grass to weave mats, hats, socks, and mittens.
In 1944, an Aleut basket cost $100. In 1973, Parascovia sold one of her small Aleut baskets to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center for $300. Today, some Aleut baskets are worth thousands of dollars.
Aleut Basket Weaving
The art of Aleut basket weaving is not easy to master and requires great patience. The process in making an Aleut basket begins in the summer when the long, soft rye grass is cut while it is still green. The outer layer of the grass is stripped away, and small bundles are made, which are hung up on a line to dry. It can take several months for the grass to dry out, thanks to the persistent Aleutian fog.
Once the rye grass is ready, the basket weaver uses her thumbnail to split the blade of grass into four tiny strands. The grass is placed in a damp cloth, and the technique used to weave the basket is called “twining.” It’s important that the weaver’s fingers are dipped in water because the moisture keeps the grass flexible. Silk and wool are also woven in to embroider patterns on the basket. Aleut baskets can take four to six months to weave, working several hours a day.
The finished Aleut basket is strong but soft to the touch and feels like linen or grosgrain silk.
Aleut Baskets in Museums
Aleut baskets and other artifacts — such as their kayaks, fishing and hunting gear — can be found in museums all over the world.
In the National Museum of Finland’s permanent exhibition, “Fetched from Afar,” a rare collection of Aleut, Inuit, and American Indian art is on display. These items were collected by Adolf Etholén, a Finn who worked in Alaska as a civil servant when it was still part of the Russian empire in the early 19th century.
In Russia, several museums have collections of Aleut art and artifacts. Of particular note, the D.N. Anuchin Research Institute and Museum of Anthropology of Moscow State University and the State Historical Museum in Moscow both house Aleut artifacts from Waldemar Jochelson’s collection. Jochelson was a Russian ethnographer who led expeditions to the Aleutians for the Imperial Russian Geographic Society in 1909 -1910.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has an excellent collection of Aleut baskets, particularly cigar cases, as well as artifacts, such as a hunting helmet and spear.
The Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska, Alaska houses a permanent collection of some of the very best Aleut baskets.