Assignment Alaska: Attu basket weaving preserves historic village traditions

Published: Oct. 3, 2016 at 9:26 AM AKDT
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The Attu style of basket weaving has a reputation of intricate detail and tightly-woven design.

Tiny, tight patterns, used for miniature grass baskets, are unique to weavers from the small village of Attu, which used to exist at the end of Alaska’s Aleutian Chain.

The cultural tradition was almost extinguished when the village was captured and residents were taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II.

The village itself didn’t survive the war, but the villagers and some of their traditions did.

“If (the villagers) hadn’t come back, this probably would have gone extinct,” said Sharon Kay, an Attu basket weaver.

Kay wanted to learn more about her Unangax̂ and Aleut heritage, so she took a class on weaving the tiny grass baskets back in 1983.

“The woman who taught me was originally from Attu Island,” Kay said.

“She was 18 or 19 during the war when she was taken to Japan as one of the prisoners.”

At the time, when Kay was just learning to weave Attu style baskets, the unique art form was already in danger of disappearing.

“There was a handful of women who still knew how to do this style,” she said. “It was becoming extinct.”

Almost immediately, Kay started teaching others the Attu weaving style.

“Some in our culture call me a tradition bearer, because I’m passing on the knowledge,” she said.

In a recent partnership with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, Kay taught a month-long class that was designed to train more teachers. Their hope is that the Attu basket weaving style doesn’t become so endangered again.

Recently, about a dozen women of varying ages and backgrounds practiced weaving grass into Attu baskets.

One student, Eve Mendhall, has already started teaching others.

“It’s part of who we are,” Mendhall said. “I know that I’ve got the skills and the versatility to do the teaching of it, so I can teach it to the right people.”

Ultimately, the Attu baskets are more than just intricate trinkets. They’re preserving a way of life.

“They’ll have learned all the steps, and hopefully something from our culture,” Kay said.

Kay has also written a book,

Learn To Weave An Attu Basket

, for those who may not have access to classes at the