Tix^yux^ – Wild rye.

Basket woven by Diane Svarny.

Unangan weaving has the reputation of being some of the finest weaving being done today; for millenia, for that matter.  It can take a weaver many months to complete a project.    It also has the reputation of being some of the most beautiful weaving, exacting in the details of process and design.  So much goes into weaving each project that it should come as  no surprise at how time consuming even the first steps can be.

If you have ever been to the Aleutians during the summer, one of the first comments you are likely to make will be something about the abundant, large grass growing on the beach shores and up into the meadowlands.  You are looking at tix^lux^, or wild rye grass, or in the scientific lingo, Elymus mollis.  It is this beautiful grass that played such a large part in the lives of the Unangax^.

Salmonberries and mushrooms 066 (2)Weaving used to be a very utilitarian aspect of Unangan life.  Grasses were used to weave fish baskets, berry baskets, clam containers, floor mats, wall coverings, room dividers, mittens,  socks, burial mats, capes….you name it and it was probably a woven product.  The beauty of the fine weaving, though, was not recognized until the Unangax^ were invaded by Russian fur procurers and items began leaving the region, either as items taken forcibly, or, in later years, as items of trade.

I am lucky that my mother has passed on the art of gathering and curing grass for basket weaving.  It is no longer a common occurrence.  I miss seeing women returning from the hills carrying large bundles of grass over their shoulders.  Those bundles were tossed and dampened and protected from sunlight for up to 2 months, depending on conditions.  Then the grass was stripped down to the inner blades of grass; the ones that were at the center of the blade, thus protected from the salty elements.  One large bundle is reduced to a bundle measuring, perhaps, an inch in diameter.

basket grass

Just so you know, both my daughters have been on the August grass gathering forays.

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Where Heaven is a local call.

Front Beach, Unalaska, Alaska.
Front Beach, Unalaska, Alaska.

In the throes of summer, where temps range from the low 40’s to the mid 60’s, time flies by.  It is a perfect time when the seas are just right, the clouds are high and scattered, the sun is shining, and the fish are running.  The grass is lush and green and wildflowers are full of bumblebees.  A spellbinding moment in time when the “other half” is patient and peaceful.  These are the times that I think of how my friend Tiny remarks on Unalaska’s spectacular beauty and how he believes that heaven is a local call.  He is so absolutely correct.

Wood

Birch
Birch

Wood in the Aleutians has always been gathered off the beaches.  Driftwood.  It has drifted here from somewhere else; somewhere that has trees.  Because we don’t have trees.  And we really don’t miss them.  They tend to block the view.  They are slightly claustrophobic.  They blow down in the wind.  Considering the fact that we have no trees, wood held a prominent position in our traditional culture.  The most mathematically engineered boat ever constructed was made out of found wood.  Our iqyan (kayaks) are considered  second to none.  The bentwood hunting visor was made out of found wood.  Masks for ceremony, dancing, and storytelling were made out of wood.  Tool handles were made out of found wood.  Bowls and utensils were made out of wood.  If you wanted to waste a good, huge piece of found wood, you could have used it for building part of your semi-subterranean dwelling; otherwise you could use a whale rib.

We scour the beaches for cottonwood.  It is the only wood my family supposedly uses for making smoked salmon.  I say supposedly because my mother and I  say to each other “Yes, that’s cottonwood.  Well, I’m pretty sure that is cottonwood.  Hmmm…maybe that is cottonwood.”  Anyway the fish is good.  As times change and our town becomes more populated, of course more people are going after the wood resource.  It’s becoming harder and harder to find found wood.  That is when having a husband who works for the airlines and having a sister who lives in Anchorage where they have trees comes in handy.  We have had a couple of lovely shipments of cottonwood from Barbara.  We, of course, share the smoked fish with her.  Her latest shipment was a couple of chunks of birch.  Considering that my husband, Caleb, bought my mom a new wood carving set for Christmas, and my mother and father bought Caleb a new wood carving set for Christmas, I think we will see some magnificent pieces coming to life from this newly found wood.

Ugigdada – Share

Ugigdada, or share, is a  very important Unangan value.  It relates to anything that can be shared, as opposed to just sharing a resource.  Examples are work, joy, responsibility, happiness.  Most importantly though, the Unangan shared the food that they acquired from hunting and gathering.  It is still one of the first values that is taught to youngsters who are learning to provide for their families.  You are responsible for providing for your family, but you are also responsible for ensuring that your community has enough.  If someone cannot hunt due to illness, you share what you get with them.  You are responsible for making sure that the Elders in your community have enough traditional food to keep them not only healthy, but happy.  You can expect to be treated the same way under the same circumstances.

Getting ready to fillet a red salmon.
Getting ready to fillet a red salmon.

My husband Caleb and I fish.  It started out that we would help mom and dad as they got older, but has evolved from the first moment.  We fish, but we wouldn’t be fishing the front beach if our brother-in-law didn’t share his boat, engine, and net with us.  We wouldn’t be very successful fisherman if we didn’t have the help from sons, nephews, grandsons, daughters, and friends who share their strength and time in helping us pull in the net.  With all the new regulations in fishing, having to monitor the net makes it hard for us to take care of the fish immediately like we have been taught.  So my mother shares not only her most excellent filleting abilities by being responsible for filleting the fish, but she also shares her knowledge by teaching all of us how to fillet.  This comes in handy when we just tire her out and then we step in.  My dad shares his knowledge in producing the final product whether it be dried fish, smoked fish, canned, or frozen.  There is no one who knows more about the brine, the wood, and the timing.

Mom stripping red salmon to hang them in the smoke house.
Mom stripping red salmon to hang them in the smoke house.

Eating the foods that we grew up eating is so important to us.  Not only are the foods healthy and good for us, but they provide a feeling of well being.  Because of this, Mom and Dad make sure they send food to family who does not live here.  But she also thinks of her “old pals”, so we have food going to the Pribilofs, Anchorage, Juneau, Seattle, and where ever someone may be spending time.

Ugigdada.  Share.

What happened to summer?

Having September open up like the summer we had been waiting for was odd, in itself.  Temperatures in the mid to upper 60’s was the best we’d had for the summer of 2010 and we were thrilled to be fishing for silver salmon in our shirt sleeves.   A bumper crop of salmonberries was the bonus for them being almost  a month late.  And we were fooled into thinking the blueberries would be just as late, but they were already ripe before the salmonberries were done.  And so were the mossberries and so were the cranberries.  And then the weather started turning, like hitting fast-forward while watching a movie.

My mamma picking berries surrounded by the changing colors of the tundra.

Now, mind you, I am not complaining about the weather!  That is against the values of the Unangax^.  I am just disconcerted with the unpredictability of our weather over the last several years.  I guess I have become complacent over the last 30 years, or so, in knowing what to expect and when to expect it.  I am all for a good storm.  I never sleep better than when the wind is blowing at least 50 miles per hour.  I just was taken unawares by the termination dust in September and the north wind sneaking into my berry patches.

Preparing grass…almost forgotten.

Just a quick note about basket weaving grass.  A longer post will be in the subsistence pages shortly.  Mom, Diane, and I are in the process of splitting the grass we picked in July.  We are looking for the inner blades to use in weaving Unangan baskets.  It is a long process from the picking to the splitting; and the splitting is pretty slimy and dirty!!  Just one more thing to do to keep us honest and out of trouble!! 

Gert and Diane getting ready to split the weavers out of the grass stalks.