Baleen is a material obtained by Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Islanders from harvested whales, particularly the bowhead. Baleen plates have hair-like structures that filter out tiny floating organisms and fish and are found in the mouth of plankton-eating whales. Baleen was originally used for indigenous objects like water cups, buckets and sleds.
Baleen became popular in the nineteenth century for Victorian use and was manufactured into corset stays, fishing rods and umbrella ribs. By 1920 commercial whaling the Arctic had ceased and baleen was no longer being harvested for the non- Native market. Then around 1918 a Barrow trader, Charles Brower, commissioned a Barrow man, Kinguktuk, to make a baleen basket. Kinguktuk twined the basket, copying a lidded Athabaskan willow-root container. Since that time, baleen basketry has been an important northern art form and source of income for people in the region.
Today, there are just a handful of people who weave these baskets primarily men. Baleen basket production is generally limited to Barrow, Point Hope, Kivalina, and Kotzebue. The baskets are extremely difficult to weave and very collectable. The baleen is stripped, soaked in water and then woven. Most baskets are twined, with ivory starter pieces on the base and walrus ivory (or bone) finials ornamenting the lid. Only Alaskan Natives are allowed to harvest and use baleen.
There are very strict laws regarding baleen and ivory; if you are interested in ordering internationally please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 907-983-3939 and we'll see how we can help!