Mentorship and the Art of Chilkat Weaving

Two years ago, young Anastasia Hobson-George walked down the street to visit her neighbor, Lily Hope. Lily, a traditional Chilkat weaver, was always busy working when Anastasia would visit. One day she said, “if you are going to sit and visit with me while I am weaving, then you, too, can get your fingers moving doing something to help with the weaving.” Anastasia has been learning to weave ever since that day.

As a recipient of a 2018 NACF Mentor Artist Fellowship award, Lily Hope (Tlingit) has been working to mentor Anastasia Hobson-George (Tlingit) in the traditional practice of Chilkat weaving – an art form and skill of vital importance to Tlingit cultural preservation. The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) Mentor Artist Fellowship supports artists and culture bearers in their effort to revitalize and perpetuate cultural art forms. Through a year-long program, the fellowship award gives emerging artists, like Anastasia, time to improve their artistic skills while also participating in professional development opportunities with a mentor.

On her recent visit to Alaska, NACF Director of Programs, Francene Blythe spent an afternoon with Lily and her apprentice Anastasia who were working on a joint art project, a pair of leggings — an apparel piece that can be part of Chilkat weavings, along with blankets, vests, and other items. In addition to perpetuating cultural knowledge through mentorship, the NACF Mentor Artist Fellowship encourages artists to engage in their communities. During their mentorship year, Lily and Anastasia have participated in workshops, talks, and have given presentations about their arts practice at Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, Alaska.

Lily, who was taught by her mother the late master weaver Clarissa Rizal, understands the vital importance of passing on intergenerational knowledge. As Lily did with Anastasia two years ago, Clarissa began teaching Lily when she was a young girl by giving her something to occupy her fingers while she worked. Over time, Lily learned to weave while listening to her mother’s stories and songs, rooted in the ancestral customs and traditions of the Tlingit culture. This method of learning from elders is Indigenous science, oral knowledge that is sacred and challenging to retain and practice in our modern world.

The NACF hopes to inspire Native artists, and provide space for a new generation of emerging artists who are invested in preserving traditional Native art practices. During the past year, Anastasia has learned how and when to pull bark, how to identify cedar trees ready for harvest, and how to prepare the yellow cedar bark into softened fibers for weaving. She also learned how to clean, spin, and naturally dye goat hair. Thanks to culture bearers like Lily Hope, Anastasia is well on her way to becoming an established Chilkat weaver.

Chilkat weaving is a complex hand-twined weaving style, requiring a great deal of expertise, time, and dedication. Weaving one Chilkat Robe may take between one to four years to weave, and up to ten years or more to collect enough Alaska mountain goat hair wool in the true traditional practice of this art.