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Agnes Thompson

  • Agnes Thompson

Agnes Thompson is a weaver from a long line of weavers with roots on the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Atka. She was born in Atka and lives in Anchorage. She has made a study of beach grass.

    2017

  • Fellowship
  • Folk & Traditional Arts

‘Your DNA remembers’

Agnes Thompson still remembers the first time she saw the perfect weaving grass — pliable, bleached white and silky smooth, precious and rare, carefully bundled up in the blanket spread before her, a gift from an elder too blind to use it.

“Take what you want,” the woman told Thompson.

Thompson, who comes from a long line of weavers with roots on the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Atka, had never seen grass cured quite like that.

“I’ll take it all,” she said.

That was in the 1980s. While there was enough grass in the blanket for many projects, it didn’t last forever. Reproducing it the traditional way hasn’t been easy, Thompson said. Nobody ever showed her how. And these days, there’s only one way left to learn, she said.

“You experiment with it, because the elders aren’t here for us to ask questions anymore,” said Thompson, now 71, sitting at the kitchen table in her East Anchorage home one summer afternoon.

The Unangax̂ basket weaving tradition is in her genes, she said. It’s intertwined with her family tree, passed forward by mothers and aunts, even as outside forces disrupted the old patterns.

Before Thompson’s birth, her mother lived on Attu with her first husband and children, and when the Japanese invaded during World War II, the family was carried from their homeland to a prison camp in Japan. They returned to Atka after the war to find houses burned by the U.S. Navy to prevent Japanese occupation. Rebuilding homes and families and traditions took time.

Thompson was born on Atka. When she was 13, before her mother had a chance to show her how to weave baskets the traditional way, she was sent from the island to attend high school on the mainland. There were no Unangax̂ weaving classes at Bethel High School or Copper Valley Catholic School or Mount Edgecumbe. She didn’t go back to Atka much after that, she said. More than a decade passed.

Her introduction to her family’s art came when she was pregnant with her own child. A pair of teachers back on the island started work to revive the weaving tradition, and local weavers, including Thompson’s mother, agreed to teach. When Thompson heard, she knew what she wanted to do.

She returned to Atka that summer to learn the craft from her mother, and she spent a month watching her work, trying to recreate each step. When she came back to Anchorage, she wove a second basket, committing the turning weave and ending stitches to memory. An aunt helped her remember what she’d forget.

Observation was always the best way to learn, Thompson said.

“You just had to learn from people who knew how,” she said.

In the beginning, she used raffia, because properly prepared Atka grass is difficult to get. Before scheduled commercial flights to the island, traveling back home meant flying to Adak, then making the final leg of the journey by boat, Thompson said. Now roundtrip flights cost more than $1,000.

Traditionally, weavers on the island picked their grass when it was long and tall and green, separating the strands to harvest the choice inner fibers, Thompson learned. Some Aleutian Island communities cured the grass under shelter. Some used the sun and wind. Give it good drainage, elders once told her. Spread it across the rocks.

Not many people know those things these days, she said. Teachers have passed away. As years go by, firsthand knowledge begins to fade, Thompson said. Over the decades, new construction on the island obliterated some of the prime spots for picking grass. In Atka, population 74, few women weave grass baskets anymore, Thompson said.

“It’s within a generation of being lost,” she said. “It’s a dying art, especially in the Aleutians.”

It’s been a while since she used the last fibers of that perfectly cured Atka grass the elder left behind. Since then, she said, she’s tried several times to reproduce it, experimenting with reddish-brownish grass from the west side of Cook Inlet and young grass plucked from Atka last summer.

Her last experiment bore promising results, she said. She’ll try again.

“They say your DNA remembers,” she said. “It’s part of who I am.”

Kirsten Swann is a journalist based in Anchorage, Alaska. She currently works as a producer and reporter for Alaska Public Media. She’s reported everywhere from Anchorage to eastern Siberia and founded the Mountain View Post blog and magazine, which she still runs.

Image credits - All gallery images and artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Writer portrait courtesy of the writer.