On June 28, the Portland Art Museum (PAM) hosted a closing celebration for Interwoven Radiance, part of the Center for Contemporary Native Art. The exhibition, organized by 2018 NACF Mentor Artist Fellow, Lily Hope (Tlingit), featured weavers of the Northwest Coast.
The cultural practice of Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving originated among the Tsimshian, and was retained by traditional Tlingit and Haida weavers in Alaska. Ravenstail, the predecessor to the Chilkat weaving tradition was named for the resemblance it bore to the tail feathers of a raven.1 It is more minimalistic with black-and-white geometric designs. In contrast, Chilkat robes combine imagery from nature with “formline” motifs common throughout Northwest Coast traditional art.
Hope, who organized the exhibition with the museum, was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska. She is Tlingit, of the Raven clan. Her mother’s mother’s clan, the T’akdeintaan, orginated from the Snail House in Hoonah, Alaska. Weaving has been passed down through her matrilineal side and her work can be seen alongside her mother (and teacher) the late Clarissa Rizal’s work, who was also a 2015 NACF National Artist Fellow. A robe called the Lineage Robe is in the PAM’s permanent collection that commemorates the traceable lineage of Chilkat weaver-teachers from Clara Benson, Jennie Thlunaut, Clarissa Rizal, and Lily Hope. Hope was awarded the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) Mentor Artist Fellowship this year to mentor a new generation of weavers and preserve the lineage. The NACF Mentor Artist Fellowship supports artists and culture bearers in their effort to revitalize and perpetuate cultural art forms. Hope’s apprentice, Anastasia Hobson-George, is learning to weave in the Chilkat tradition – an art form and skill of vital importance to Tlingit cultural preservation.
Interwoven Radiance displayed the artistic achievements of Native women artists of the Northwest Coast. Hope collaborated with the PAM to showcase the craftsmanship of contemporary Native designs, with the hope of bringing more awareness to the traditional art of Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving. There are only a handful of Native weavers who are trained in this complex art form – a time consuming process that can take years to master. The weaving practice was nearly lost until Native women like Hope’s mother, Clarissa Rizal, revived the tradition.
Featured in the exhibition were Hope’s Heritage Robe, Rizal’s Resilience Robe plus a child’s robe, and two of Teri Rofkar’s Ravenstail robes including her DNA Robe that is made entirely of goat’s wool. The late Rofkar was also a 2013 NACF Artist Fellow. Additionally, the exhibition featured a Chilkat-Ravenstail robe called Weavers Across the Waters, a community-woven robe including the work of 50 artists along the coast from Oregon to British Columbia. This collaboration of women honors the traditions of the weavers who came before them, and lays a foundation for future generations who will weave their own narrative.
The celebration commemorated the closing of the exhibition, and allowed the robes to be danced before they are moved to various museums. Many Alaska Native peoples believe that these objects are alive with tribal and family stories woven into the designs. Ishmael Hope, Lily Hope’s husband and an Alaska Native storyteller, led the celebration saying that the robes are “the breath of our ancestors.” He went on to liken contemporary Native cultures to a traditional Tlingit story, a tale of survival when Raven instructed the people to build a canoe, offering hope when the world was flooding. He said he feels like, “we’re flooded over with this new way of life, but we still have hope, we still have a place to go, we still do the weavings, we are still here, we still claim our land, that is why we are going to be dancing in the Chilkat and Ravenstail blankets.”
And so they danced. The fringe of the robes swaying with the gentle dips and turns of the dancers, they came alive to create new stories for future generations.
I want Chilkat and Ravenstail to be as well-known as Navajo weaving[…]I’ve had people reaching me from as far away as Boston saying, I was at the Portland Art Museum and now I know what Chilkat weaving is.
― Lily Hope (Tlingit)
Chilkat and Ravenstail Weaving
Weaving is a time-consuming process that takes months of preparation, and sometimes years to complete a robe. Traditionally mountain goat wool was used, but contemporary weavers typically use thigh-spun merino wool to create the weft – horizontal interlacing threads. To create the warp – vertical threads – strips of cedar are spun with the wool fibers to become the structure of the blanket. Traditional Chilkat designs are “formline” art woven with naturally dyed wool in yellow, black, and bluish green in addition to the natural white wool, however Ravenstail robes are mostly white with sparing use of yellow and contrasting geometrical designs woven in black wool. Two major elements of design are the eagle and raven, the foundation of the Tlingit clan system. The hands of the weaver must produce the correct tension necessary to weave on a loom that only has a top frame and vertical supports, with no bottom frame. The entire weaving process can take more than a year to complete a single robe.2
The art exhibit and closing celebration was sponsored by the Portland Art Museum in collaboration with the Native American Art Council, Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
1Emmons, George T. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History. III, New York, 1907. With Notes on the Blanket Designs, by Franz Boas.
2Wright, Robin Kathleen, et al. In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum. Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art, Burke Museum, 2013.