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Aug 29, 2021| Alaska History & Culture

Baleen Baskets: Native (Iñupiaq) Art from Alaska’s North

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BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT

Lynch & Kennedy
Skagway, AK

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BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT

Corrington's Alaskan Ivory
Skagway, AK

Visit Store

Baleen baskets are one-of-a-kind, hand-woven pieces of art. Not only are they highly collectible, but they are also highly prized by collectors. Native to Alaska, these baskets are made of baleen which comes from non-toothed whales such as the Bowhead, which are subsistence harvested for food by northern Iñupiaq groups. Baleen is the filter-like feeding system inside the mouths of whales, which helps them filter out their food sources (krill and plankton), which is made of the same keratin that makes up our fingernails. 

The History of Baleen Baskets

The Inupiat and Yupik Native groups have long depended upon whales as a source of food and are allowed to harvest a limited amount per year to feed the people of their village. They utilize all of the whale harvests that they can, including the baleen from the whale’s mouth. Though most baleen is brown, white or "green” baleen comes from female or younger whales.  

Baleen is comparable in texture to hard plastic and has been used in the past to create many types of items, including cups, buckets, fishing lines, sleds, and nets. Baleen also became extremely popular in the 19th Century for Victorian use, during which it was used to create corset stays. However, by 1920, commercial whaling in the Arctic was no longer allowed and baleen became a Native-only material. 

According to the book, "Baleen Basketry of the North Alaskan Eskimo,” by Molly Lee (University of Washington Press), the earliest identified baleen basket makers were Kinguktuk and his wife from Point Barrow, who made their first baleen pieces between 1914 and 1918. In 1918, a man named Chris Brower commissioned Kinguktuk to make a baleen basket for him. He twined the basket and added an ivory topper. This blossomed the art of baleen basketry. 

Since then, it has become an important northern art form, and artisans in the Northern Alaska region (Barrow, Hope Point, Kivalina, and Kotzebue) craft baleen baskets as a source of income. 

How Are Baleen Baskets Made? 

Traditionally, baleen baskets are made by men from the northern villages to sell to Alaskan tourists. However, since the 1970s, more women have become involved in the craft, according to the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon.

Coiled baleen baskets are the most popular style of the baleen basket family and were first created around the 1920s for tourists visiting Alaska. These baskets are created by coiling the baleen bands together and adding an ivory carved knob as the handle. These ivory knobs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, traditionally shaped as an Alaskan animal. 

Not only is the baleen in baskets from reputable makers authentic, but the ivory is as well.  

Why Are Authentic Baleen Baskets So Expensive?

Because many younger people in Alaska have other sources of income, the number of basket weavers is steadily declining. Today, there is a limited amount of Baleen Basketweavers, still primarily men, all from the northern Alaskan region. Unfortunately, traditional Native art is less and less available as the younger generations do not pick up the craft. In addition, depending on the size of the basket, one is likely to spend at least a week per piece, if worked on full time.  

If you’re planning to make a trip to Alaska in hopes of purchasing a basket, be prepared to spend a pretty penny. Preparing the baleen to be weave-able is an arduous and time-consuming process. The weft and weave must be cut and stripped, which is hard on artisans’ hands. The baleen needs to be pliable to be woven and is typically woven underwater. 

Since baleen baskets are rare and incredibly difficult to create, the price of each piece can be quite high. Baskets range in price anywhere from $500 to upwards of $20,000. 

When making such an expensive purchase, it’s important to ensure that the product you’re being sold is the real deal. Be sure to purchase from sellers who know the sources of their baskets and who can help you authenticate your purchases. For example, Voyij seller Lynch & Kennedy sources their baskets directly from celebrated artisan Marilyn Hank and her family. Their signature will always be on the bottom-first "ivory” that starts the basket.  

Where Can I Purchase Baleen Baskets?

Looking to purchase one of these beautiful pieces of art? Look for reputable, local Alaska stores that are knowledgeable about these art objects.  

Vendors including Corrington’s Alaskan Ivory and Lynch & Kennedy both offer authentic baleen baskets on voyij.com. 

Learn more about these products or get more help with your purchase by contacting us through chat or email!

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