Native Alaska YUP'IK Basket

Agnes Tommy
Item number: PYH 5330  

This is a "mingqaq," which means "coiled grass basket" in the Yup'ik language. It was made by Agnes Tommy in Newtok (Yup'ik name: Niugtaq), a small village on the Ningliq River in Alaska. In a Los Angeles Times newspaper article about climate changes in Newtok, Agnes Tommy was mentioned; in 2004 when the article was published, she was "probably 82." This basket was probably made in the 1960's, when Agnes Tommy was in her 40's.

The basket is symmetrical and expertly shaped, with no sagging or irregularities. Made of local grasses, the globe shaped basket has a knob top on the lid that serves as a handle. There are geometric designs, spaced around the basket, that are composed of red and brown dyed grass. Measuring 10 1/2 inches tall with a 30 inch circumference around the equator (about 9 inches across), it rests on a 4 1/2 inch diameter base. It weighs 3/4 of a pound and is in very good condition. Around the upper rim there are a few areas of missing stitches (shown) and the dyes have faded, more in some areas than in others. The lid fits snugly and the basket displays handsomely.

Accompanying the basket is a typed information card from Arctic Travelers Gift Shop in Fairbanks, Alaska, established in 1955. It describes the process of making the basket from the viewpoint of a native weaver. There is also a hangtag from the shop, identifying the artist as Agnes Tommy and the place of origin as Newtok. The tag also guarantees that the basket is a genuine, handcrafted Alaska-made item.

>>>Newtok made the news frequently over the last 20 years, due to the twin effects of erosion and melting permafrost on their land. In 2019, 18 families were the first to move from Newtok to the new village of Mertarvik, located across the river, which is expected to be completed by 2023. Studies have shown that large parts of Newtok will become part of the river in the next 5 years or so.


PYH 5330  

This handsome single-weave Cherokee basket was twill plaited of white oak splints circa 1960's. It's called a market basket; its uses included storing grain, catching fish and carrying food. Over the last century, weaving patterns have been named for the weave itself such as “over-two, under-two," which is the pattern used for this basket.

Cherokee dyes are natural, sourced from roots, bark, and leaves and controlled by the amount of time the splints spend in boiling water. The natural dyes tend to be fugitive, often fading faster than commercial dyes. The color of the oak splints has darkened over time, except for the dyed green weavers, which have faded on the outside but are more vivid on the inside of the basket. The colored splints form a large open "X" on each side of the basket, a large diamond on each end with smaller diamonds surrounding them. The diamonds pattern is a Cherokee favorite to use for twill plaiting.

Inner sides of the D-shaped splint handle are notched just below the hoop rim to provide extra support. The rim is vertically wrapped with strips of hickory bark. The top is oval, measuring 12 1/2 inches long by 8 1/4 inches wide. The bottom is rectangular, 11 inches long by 7 inches wide. The basket is 8 inches tall; it measures 13 inches tall to the top of the handle. It weighs 3/4 of a pound and has the original price of $1.35 penciled on a bottom splint.

Cherokee baskets are very sturdy; this one appears almost unused, with no breaks, missing pieces or visible wear. Made by a talented woman basket maker in North Carolina, the basket displays beautifully and will become a family heirloom.

PYH 5509