Rare basket returns to Aleutian Islands

By Victoria Barber
The Dutch Harbor Fisherman 4-08


It was a homecoming long in the making, but a rare basket returned to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands after about 70 years of traveling the United States in February, the gift of 101-year-old Washington resident Evangeline Baker Payette.

“It’s in the right place,” Payette said of the donation. “I say it’s gone home now.”

Payette had kept the basket under a glass dome in her living room for 58 years, never knowing that it was an extremely rare example of Attu basket weaving from the early 20th century.

She had received it 1950 as a gift from her father, a piano tuner named Harry Baker who told her only that he believed it was made in 1935 or 1936.

Payette said her father traveled throughout Alaska tuning the pianos of army and naval bases during World War II, but how he came by the exceptionally fine basket is a mystery.

“I can almost bet you money that he took it as payment for work he did,” Payette said. “He was kind of like the old country doctor who would take in chickens for work and so forth.”

Standing just 4-3/4 inches tall and 3-3/4 inches in diameter, the lidded basket was woven of wild rye grass and decorated with small silken flowers. Baker seems to have known it was valuable, because after returning to Seattle he locked it away in a safe.

In 1950, Baker traveled to the East Coast to visit his daughter and learned she had taken up hand weaving. He told her about his basket, and asked if she would like it.

Payette was delighted.


“Well – would I like it!” Payette said. “I thought it was very lovely ... . It was something I’d never seen before.”

So lovely, that Payette’s husband immediately felt that it needed special care.

“The first thing that my husband said was, ‘It needs to be under cover,”’ Payette said. Payette’s husband set about constructing a platform for the basket to rest on and found a glass dome to cover it. He filled the basket with rice to help keep its shape and protect it from the humid Virginia climate.

For 58 years that was how the basket remained lovely, under glass and mysterious. Payette moved to California, then to Washington, and the basket, with its dome, traveled with her.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Payette said. “It didn’t seem important to me, it was something lovely to look at and that was it.”

After Payette downsized from a house to an apartment she began clearing out items from her large collection of antiques. She wanted to find a place for the basket, but was at a loss as to where it to begin until four years ago, when Payette first met Rebecca Hoskyn.

Hoskyn is Payette’s home-care nurse but happened to have studied anthropology and Native American art in university. On her first day working with Payette she was immediately drawn to the basket and asked Payette where she had gotten it.

“Do you know what it is?” Payette asked.

“Yes.”

“No one knows what it is,” said Payette.

That day, Payette and Hoskyn began the search for the basket’s rightful place. Over the next four years they sought out appraisers, museum curators and basket weavers throughout Washington and Alaska. All agreed that the basket was rare, it was Attu in style and it was in excellent condition.

Hoskyn sent digital photos of the basket to Raymond Hudson, a basket weaver and published historian of the Aleutian Islands. Based on photos, he said that the basket’s construction was of the highest quality and dated it to the late teens through the early 1930s.

“It’s a classic Attu basket from that period. ... The design is very simple, but very strong, and the stitches are remarkably even,” Hudson said.

Though it is impossible to determine for certain the basket’s creator, Hudson said that he believed that the basket might have been made by master weaver Vassa “Maggie” Prokopioff, who he called the greatest practitioner of the art.

“The fineness of the weaving and the beauty of the design put it right up there with the top baskets,” Hudson said.

Payette knew more about the basket than ever before, but she was still undecided about where it should go. She considered giving it to family members, selling it at auction, donating it to the University of Washington or donating it to a museum in Anchorage.

Every day Payette and Hoskyn would discuss where the basket should go, but without reaching a decision.

“We went all different ways, and nothing seemed right to me,” Payette said. “I needed to feel right about it.”

Finally, Hoskyn contacted the Aleut Corp., where a representative told her that there was a Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska, near to where the basket had been made.

Hoskyn told Payette that she’d found a museum in the region where the basket had come from.

“It would be home, wouldn’t it,” Payette replied.

Just a month later, Hoskyn’s brother hand-carried the basket in a large glass bottle to Anchorage, where he gave it to Zoya Johnson, executive director of the Museum of the Aleutians.

Johnson said that the gift left her astonished.

“I was really moved to tears,” Johnson said. “Obviously the family cared very much for this basket and cared for it very well. ... The condition of the basket is pristine.”

Johnson said that most of the baskets in the museum’s collection were made much later, in the 1950s or ‘60s. Older baskets, along with many other early works of Unangan art, disappeared when the people of the Aleutian Islands were evacuated during World War II.

“This community has lost most of the most valuable works of art that have been created here over the centuries,” Johnson said. “They are part of the history of this place.”

Johnson carried the basket back to the museum, where it currently resides. The basket will be unveiled in an exhibit of recently acquired artifacts this summer.

On Payette’s request, the basket will be presented with a label that reads:

“H.J. Baker and Evangeline Baker Payette. At last I am home!”

 

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