Athapaskan Indians Borrowed Ideas From
Neighbors; Life Still Rough
The Athapaskan tribes of Native Americans once called a vast area of northwestern Canada and the interior of Alaska home. They are distantly related to the Navajo and Apaches of the Southwest, as well as to a number of small Oregon and California tribes.
They lived primitively in wild forest areas where life was especially harsh. In winter, the long cold nights, deep snow and storms kept them confined to their semi-underground bark and earth huts. Starvation was a very real possibility if insufficient dried or smoked meat had not been put away for the “short white days.”
Their main meat supply was caribou, which also supplied them with hide. Large fenced corrals, or pounds, were built into which the caribou were driven and more easily killed. The Athapaskans also hunted and trapped foxes, martens, lynx and other furbearers. The skins were used for trade and for fine tailor-made skin clothing, as well as blankets and bedding.
Travel was by dogsled, an idea borrowed from their Eskimo neighbors to the north. Water travel was originally by birch bark canoe, but this in time came to be replaced by a type of craft similar to the Eskimo skin umiak.
It was definitely a society where men had supremacy. They decorated themselves colorfully, with brightly colored headbands, colored pendants and necklaces, and painted their faces with stripes or designs of black lead and red ocher. Brilliant feathers were worn in their hair, which was plastered down with grease.
The men had the fun of fishing and hunting, and also the use of the domed sweathouse. Here they held their conferences while they took their steam baths. When it got too hot, they would run and dive into the nearest stream.
The lives of the women were much harder. They were the burden bearers and the wood gatherers, the weavers and the housekeepers. Food was cooked by dropping hot stones into tightly woven baskets full of water. The women confined their body decoration to tattooed lower lips and chins. They never dressed brilliantly like the men.
As time passed, the Athapaskans began to pick up some of the customs of the Tlingit tribes to the west, as well as some from the Eskimo to the north. One of these developments was the building of all board and post houses with gabled roofs, replacing their part-bark, part-board partially buried homes.
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Craftsmen Shops Produce Furniture In A
Style Given T he Name ‘Mission’
Mission furniture is a style developed in the American Arts and Crafts movement in the 1890s. Pieces were very simple and plain, with straight lines and little or no decoration. They were usually made of oak. The name apparently was derived from an early link to the Franciscan missions in California.
The furniture was first promoted by Joseph McHugh, who ran a shop in New York. It is Gustav Stickley, however, who has remained most well known for his work in the Mission style. He used primarily fumed oak, which is wood that has been exposed to ammonia, giving it an aged look immediately.
During the first two decades of this century, Gustav Stickley had retail outlets across the country, selling pieces of furniture from his Craftsman Workshops. Most items he designed himself.
In 1909, Stickley described his philosophy of design in the following way: “When I first began to use the severely plain, structural forms, I chose oak as the wood that, above all others, was adapted to massive simplicity of construction. The strong, straight lines and plain surfaces of the furniture follow and emphasize the grain and growth of the wood, drawing attention to, instead of destroying, the natural character that belonged to the growing tree.”
Others were also producing Mission-style furniture. The Roycroft Community, known for its metalwork, leather and bookbinding, was one group. There were several others, all producing hand-made pieces in keeping with their Arts and Crafts philosophy. Even at the time, however, the pieces were expensive.
In the commercial field, others were mass-producing Mission-style furniture. These pieces were less expensive to buy then, and they are less expensive to buy on the secondary market now.
Confusing today is the fact that one of these manufacturing companies was L. and G.J. Stickley, founded in New York in 1902 by two of Gustav’s brothers. Another company was Stickley Brothers of Grand Rapids, Michigan, run by two other brothers. (All five had worked in an uncle’s chair factory as they grew up.) The Stickley Brothers’ mass-produced pieces were not as well-made or designed as that of their brothers. The L. and G.J. Stickley factory followed Gustav’s designs, sometimes adding veneers or laminates, and in 1918 purchased brother Gustav’s Craftsman Workshops. This factory remains in business today.
Eventually, the consumer could buy Mission furniture through such places as the Sears, Roebuck catalog. There were also do-it-yourself kits available for the home workshop. Manuals such as Mission Furniture: How To Make It, written by H.H. Windsor in 1909, helped the amateur carpenter. Some of these show up today in the antiques market; as is to be expected, the home products show wide difference in quality of the final product.
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