Project: ArtShops 2017 Grass Basket Class in Kokhanok
Alaska State Council on the Arts Partnership
Written by: Marlene Nielsen, 2017 ArtShop Leader

The ArtShops program is a collaboration between the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation and The CIRI Foundation’s A Journey to What Matters: Increased Alaska Native Arts and Culture grant program. Established in 2016, ArtShops support emerging Alaska Native arts leaders to develop their skills in leading community-based arts programs.

Anna Parks (my mom) and I (Marlene Nielsen) taught a grass basket classes in Kokhanok Alaska for my ArtShop project in 2017. I wanted to teach this class because I felt that grass weaving was a lost art in our area. The project started with four women picking rye grass early in the fall along the beach to use for our class. The grass was already standing dried naturally along the beach. On the first day of weaving we had eight students. We introduced students to the different grasses that we have in Kokhanok and my mom showed the students the right grass to use for weaving, and how to sort through the grass and separate the thread and filler. We had the younger student start with raffia because it was a little to hard for them to hold and add thread. My mom said that the rye grass from the salt water side was the strongest grass. During our first class we used the grass that we collected from along the beach from Kokhanok where there is fresh water and the grass kept breaking. My mom was not happy with the grass and said we needed to use this as a filler. Thank goodness she had asked me to pick grass from Naknek last summer! We brought the Naknek grass down and sorted though them to make thread. The group of women agreed that the rye grass from salt water was much stronger to use.

We had class three times a week for a month and during the last week held class every evening for five days. During our time together the Elders told stories of how to preserve foods, and shared information about Yup’ik dancing. We also talked about the regalia, and the flu epidemic. Most of the student didn’t finish their baskets, but they got the idea of how to start, and how to sort the grass into thread and fillers. They also learned that grass basket making takes a lot of work. They want to start up again and finish their baskets.