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Baleen Baskets

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Native Alaskan made Baleen Baskets 

Baleen is a material obtained by Yupik, Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Islanders in Alaska from harvested whales, particularly the bowhead. Baleen plates have hair-like structures that filter out tiny floating organisms known as plankton and krill. Baleen, a hard fingernail like material, is found in the mouth of plankton-eating whales such as the humpback, grey, and bowhead whales common to the northwest coast and arctic oceans. Alaskan natives, with their subsistence culture, have long depended upon whales as a main source of food, and they are allowed to harvest a limited amount each year to fulfill the food needs of their villages. They utilize all of the whales they harvest, including the baleen which they fashion into various types of traditional art forms.

Baleen, called natures fiberglass, was originally used for indigenous objects like eating utensils, water cups, buckets and sled runners by the first-nations arctic native groups of Alaska. When baleen became popular in the nineteenth century for Victorian use, it was collected and manufactured into corset stays, fishing rods and umbrella ribs. By 1920 commercial whaling in the Arctic had ceased and baleen was no longer being harvested for the non-Native market. Then around 1918 a Barrow trader, Charles Brower, commissioned a Barrow man, Kinguktuk, to make baleen baskets for sale to the outside market. Since that time, baleen basketry has been an important northern art form and source of income for people in the region.

Like many indigenous art forms, the art of creating baleen baskets is becoming more rare, and the number of artists declining, as many young people have other sources of income and modern life offers other sorces of enjoyment and income.  Since only native first-nations artists are allowed to use baleen, (or contemporary walrus ivory, another component of the baskets) in their art, there are perhaps less than 2 dozen active Alaskan native baleen basket makers. The numbers of artists, the difficulty of the time-consuming process of heating, stripping into strands, and then weaving the baleen into one-of-a-kind baskets causes the value of each piece created to continue to rise. These rare and delightful objects of Alaskan native art are often priced from $1,000 and higher, as authentic baskets are sought after by collectors of true American Indigenous art.