Don Johnston is a member of the Qagan Tayagungin Tribe, an Aleut community located on the Shumagin Islands in southwestern Alaska. Don, who currently lives in Oregon with his family, is renowned for his talent and exceptional skill weaving baleen baskets. Don began working with baleen, the flexible dental strands that help whales filter krill and other tiny sea animals from the sea, nearly 20 years ago after a chance encounter. A man sitting on the side of the road in Anchorage, Alaska, was shaving baleen with a knife and handed Don a strand and a knife - he started slicing hasn’t stopped since!
Don shaves the baleen to usable widths, stitches the flexible material in the traditional clockwise direction, and then reverses the direction to create a textured pattern rarely seen in the art form unique to Alaskan Natives. He also incorporates strands of white baleen, found in female whales age 65 and older, to give his basket even more visual interest. Don hand carves walrus ivory finials to use on all his lidded baskets.
Don is a recipient of the 2017 Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market Best of Show with his basket, “Qagaxtag (Love),” a stunning lidded basket featuring a whale-tail finial.