Sid Cox works Wednesday afternoon on a raffia grass basket in a class taught by April Miller at the Economic Development District in Kenai. About a dozen students learned how to sew with the coarse grass.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
In a conference room in Kenai last week, a group of nine students developed new strengths as they pushed and pulled their way through conquering a traditional art.
“You’ll get strong hands doing this,” said class instructor April Miller, as she encouraged students.
As the class progressed students began to catch on and master the traditional art.
“We have to be the boss of the rafie, right?” Loni Galloway said as she began to win a battle to tame the unruly grass.
With needles in hand and long strands rafie grass streaming into their laps, students diligently weaved the grass into coiled baskets as they pushed and pulled on their needles.
But the class was weaving more than just beautiful art, said Dee Gaddis, programs manager at the Economic Development District, where the class was being held.
Activities such as the rafie basket class also weave local talent into the peninsula economy, she said.
Their are many skilled people on the peninsula who, with a little exposure, can exploit their skill, make a living off of it and offer something valuable to their community, she said as she wiggled a rafie-threaded needle into a tight coil of grass.
Miller has been sewing with raffia since she was a young child.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Miller has been making rafie baskets for 24 years and sells her art in a small gift shop in the Queana Bar in Clam Gulch, and hopes to further exploit her skills through teaching.
On the table sat a fine specimen of her work. A coiled rafie grass basket and lid stood about an inch and a half tall. The handled lid fit so tight you could almost hear a pop when you removed it.
The coils forming the basket below the lid are so tight they can hold water, Miller said.
While weaving his coils, Sid Cox brainstormed a number of different possible decorative uses for the weaving technique, including a dog collar or sleeve that could be slipped onto a walking stick.
But Cox, who graduated with a major in anthropology, said the baskets probably had a more utilitarian history with Native cultures with whom they originated. In addition to carrying objects, he said the baskets could also be used to cook by placing water and then very hot rocks into the basket until the water boiled.
A number of students said they were drawn to learning traditional arts, particularly as winter sets in.
“This is probably the right time of year to do this,” said Rita Adams as she threaded a new strand of grass onto her needle.
Adams said she also makes fur slippers and that she first became interested in traditional arts after living in the Alaska Bush.
“Gotta do something out there,” she said. “Long winters, you know.”
While more people around the table discussed their talents, Gaddis encouraged them to capitalized on them.
For example, Gaddis suggested Caroline Morse, who makes birch bark baskets, begin teaching classes.
As the conversation continued, Gaddis reminded everyone that promoting small business development on the peninsula is a two-way street.
As Morse described how she makes her baskets, she mentioned that she sometimes has difficulty finding synthetic sinew locally and has to go to Anchorage to get it.
Gaddis urged Morse to coordinate with local suppliers by letting them know what her needs are.
“Being in economic development, I like to encourage people to shop local,” she said. “I hate to see people go to Anchorage.”
“I hate going,” Adams replied.
Gaddis said Miller’s class is the first of its kind offered at EDD, but she would like to see more. EDD is not charging Miller to use the conference room to teach the class and fees for the class go to Miller.
“It gives April visibility,” Gaddis said. “(And) it gives her the opportunity to make income and show her talent.”
The next class will be held Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information on future classes, call Dee Gaddis at 283-3335 ext. 223.
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