While I have been working on taking photographs of all the artwork that will be going into a show this coming fall, I have been surprised by the sheer volume of work that my mother and her family of artist’s have at their fingertips. This piece, an Unangan drum, made by my mother for my daughter, shows Gert’s brilliant workmanship; each component of this musical instrument is a work of art in and of itself. The drum consists of a piece of bent wood to form the drum head. The drum handle, ingeniously attached, was crafted from wood and ivory. The drum, itself, is a piece of worked goat hide, placed on the drumhead in such a way that the skin can be adjusted to accomodate humidity, thus keeping the tone that you want. The drum stick was made from a searched out piece of driftwood, covered by a piece of soft leather. The paint for the drum is red ochre, made by grinding the stone and mixing it with a medium. Brachiopods, collected from our beaches, decorate the handle and add their own sound. The design on the skin is a traditional Unangan design. The smudges on the skin were made by my daughter as this is a drum that is used for singing in Unangam tunuu and dancing our history.
Wood in the Aleutians has always been gathered off the beaches. Driftwood. It has drifted here from somewhere else; somewhere that has trees. Because we don’t have trees. And we really don’t miss them. They tend to block the view. They are slightly claustrophobic. They blow down in the wind. Considering the fact that we have no trees, wood held a prominent position in our traditional culture. The most mathematically engineered boat ever constructed was made out of found wood. Our iqyan (kayaks) are considered second to none. The bentwood hunting visor was made out of found wood. Masks for ceremony, dancing, and storytelling were made out of wood. Tool handles were made out of found wood. Bowls and utensils were made out of wood. If you wanted to waste a good, huge piece of found wood, you could have used it for building part of your semi-subterranean dwelling; otherwise you could use a whale rib.
We scour the beaches for cottonwood. It is the only wood my family supposedly uses for making smoked salmon. I say supposedly because my mother and I say to each other “Yes, that’s cottonwood. Well, I’m pretty sure that is cottonwood. Hmmm…maybe that is cottonwood.” Anyway the fish is good. As times change and our town becomes more populated, of course more people are going after the wood resource. It’s becoming harder and harder to find found wood. That is when having a husband who works for the airlines and having a sister who lives in Anchorage where they have trees comes in handy. We have had a couple of lovely shipments of cottonwood from Barbara. We, of course, share the smoked fish with her. Her latest shipment was a couple of chunks of birch. Considering that my husband, Caleb, bought my mom a new wood carving set for Christmas, and my mother and father bought Caleb a new wood carving set for Christmas, I think we will see some magnificent pieces coming to life from this newly found wood.