Cross-cultural Utility of Classification Systems: the Case of Yup’ik Eskimo Basketry of Southwest Alaska

Dr Molly Lee (Universirty of Alaska)                          

Cross-cultural Utility of Classification Systems: the Case of Yup’ik Eskimo Basketry of Southwest Alaska

Studies in the arts of acculturation – art made in one culture for consumption in another – seldom consider the effect of the art form on its makers once it has crossed the cultural divide. Yup’ik Eskimo women of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska have made coiled grass baskets (mingqaaq –at) for sale to outsiders since the late nineteenth century. The mingqaaq is made in about half the 48 Yup’ik villages in southwest Alaska. The baskets were unstudied until my research began in 1994. Since then, with my Yup’ik collaborator, Annie Don, I have accompanied Yup’ik women to the grass-picking fields, and interviewed them at home and at arts and crafts sales. Overall, I’ve tried to understand the economic, social, and spiritual significance of grass basketry in their lives. 

Lately, working with a biological anthropologist and using the Statistical Program for the Social Sciences (SPSS) I have begun developing a classification system of Yup’ik grass baskets based on data gathered from over 500 baskets in museums across Alaska.  When I began work on the taxonomy, I assumed that such a tool would be useful to non-Native basket collectors but would be of little interest to the artists themselves. Recent discussions with several of them, however, suggest that I was wrong. Whereas the women had been aware that baskets were made differently from theirs, it had not occurred to them that these differences were systematic and could be ascribed to the variable of place. A taxonomy, where characteristics such as shape decoration, and size from place to place are illustrated and summarized is bound to generate discussion. It may lead to a greater amount of experimentation and is certain to foster pride among the artists and Yup’ik people more generally. In this paper, I will summarize the history of Yup’ik basketry, explain how the taxonomy was developed, and consider its utility among basket makers and to non-Native collectors.

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