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Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Anthropology


Museum of Anthropology

American Material Culture

Baleen Basketry: Connecting Natives and New Comers

baleen basket front

Front facing view of baleen basket.

Courtesy of DUMA.

Baleen, a material found inside the mouths of plankton-eating whales, filters out tiny-floating organisms and fish out of the mouth of the whale. Baleen plates have a hair-like structure that the Inupiaq tribe used for the making of indigenous objects like water cups, buckets, and sleds.

Baleen really became popular in the 19th century (Victorian Era) and was used to manufacture objects like corset stays, fishing rods, and umbrella rods. Around 1918, a trader named Charles Brower, commissioned a man named Kinguktuk from Barrow Alaska, to make a baleen basket. Kinguktuk twined the basket copying a lidded Athabaskan container. Since this time, baleen basketry has been an important art form and source of income for native Alaskans. By 1920, Arctic commercial whaling became illegal, allowing only native Alaskans to harvest baleen.

man making baleen basket

Man making a baleen basket.

Courtesy of Alaska's Digital Archives.

People of the Inupiaq, primarily men, still weave baleen baskets today. However, this basket production is limited to select areas in Alaska. Weaving these baskets isn't easy. The baleen first must be stripped and soaked in water before the weaving process can begin. The next step involves twining the basket with ivory starter pieces on the bottom and topping them with a design made from walrus ivory or bone. A well woven basket can sell for up to $900.

baleen basket side

Side view of baleen basket.

Courtesy of DUMA.

The University of Denver Museum of Anthropology (DUMA) received the baleen basket pictured in on March 19th, 2015. John C. Reed owned the basket, gifting it to his son, Jack, donated it to DUMA. According to museum files, John probably collected the basket in 1942 when he worked for Petroleum Reserve #4 in Barrow, Alaska. This would make sense because Baleen baskets are a tourist art made by natives for nonnative consumption. Baleen basketry reveals the interconnected histories of indigenous people and the new comers in the arctic.