A thousand miles westward of the mainland of America, and almost over to Japan, is Attu the first island of the Aleutian chain, and the home of the Attu basket. There are only a half hundred natives, and time has little value. Tourists rarely ever reach the place; pride rather than commercialism is woven into the work.
The Aleut, Yakutat, and Siwash, from Attu to Seattle, now and lor time immemorial, were makers of baskets, having somewhat of a general resemblance, but enough individuality to readily classify them in the eyes of a well informed dealer. In fact the work of a single weaver may be distinguished.
As a general rule, the crude root basket of Seattle make grows a little belter on Vancouver Island, and cleaner at Metlakathla, and very much improved, with more straw, and native dyes, at Sitka, and still more improved, with finer work, native dyes and better straw at Yakutat, and reaching the climax of basket-prefection in a delicate thing of skill and beauty on Attu Island.
It is said that only one woman on Attu can make this perfect work, and no successor has learned the art. The good baskets are made by the surviving squaws of the old stock, and but few of the young women can make them. They will speedily become scarcer and cruder as the present weavers die off.
These baskets were of the most useful implements before the coming of the white man. They did the work of a water bucket, boiling kettle, fish basket, baby cab, fish trap and burial casket.
Nearly all the baskets south of Wrangell are made from spruce or other roots, steamed, heated and split, and usually colored with Diamond Dyes, and of little value. Their genuineness may be determined by the "Siwash odor," which neither age nor soap will remove, and which can not be counterfitted, nor forgotten.
In this basketry, sea weeds, roots, splits, reeds and grasses, yarns, wild goat hair and twigs are used. The gathering of these materials and preparation thereof, and of the native coloring matters, is a task of small proportions.
Coloring matter is extracted from mosses, in fact from animal, vegetable ar;d mineral matter. The well informed buyer will not purchase a Diamond Dye colored article.
The weavers have learned from the tourists or are instructed by the missionaries or traders, to use their own dyes and to make a variety of styles, including cuff and collar boxes, car cases, sewing baskets, etc.
Some of the material used is so delicate that it must be kept in water until woven into the basket. It is told that in Attu a certain kind of work must be made under water.
Totem, animal, and plant designs are most freguently woven into the basket. Great war hats were often made in the same manner, likewise potlatch uniforms.
These baskets may be found in every museum of importance in the world, and in many homes in Europe and America. They can be purchased cheaper in the shops of Seattle than in Alaska, but the tourists prefers to have some native or local story with his souvenir, and therefore purchases of the Indian, prefering to pay for it. Many curio stores await the traveler on the Alaska shore, and hundreds of Indians listen for the boat whistle, and meet the boat with their wares of every kind for sale.
Goat-horns spoons. Elk-horn knife handles. Moose-horn knapkin rings; ornaments of ivory, stone and bone; jewelry of gold, silver, copper; souvnirs of tusks, teeth, claws, hooves, beaks, tallons, fish and shells by the hundreds of thousands are for sale by the natives and stores everywhere on the Coast.
A few Chilkat blankets are made worth from $50 to $150 each, and like the best baskets, rank at the top of woven wares made by unschooled natives any where in the world.