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Baleen Baskets

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Baleen is a material obtained by Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Islanders from harvested whales, particularly the bowhead. Baleen plates have hair-like structures that filter out tiny floating organisms and fish and are found in the mouth of plankton-eating whales. Baleen was originally used for indigenous objects like water cups, buckets and sleds.

Baleen became popular in the nineteenth century for Victorian use and was manufactured into corset stays, fishing rods and umbrella ribs. By 1920 commercial whaling 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 a baleen basket. Kinguktuk twined the basket, copying a lidded Athabaskan willow-root container. Since that time, baleen basketry has been an important northern art form and source of income for people in the region.