Tlingit elders came together to share their cultural knowledge with the public in the first event of the Art of Place series on Feb. 17 at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.
“Our theme this year is teaching and learning,” said event organizer and assistant professor of English Ernestine Hayes.
To kick off the series, Ed Kunz shared his thoughts of carving and jewelry-making and Della Cheney discussed basketry and weaving.
Kunz delved into his history, recalling watching his father carve. Then when he was older, he was sent to various Alaska Native boarding schools including Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka.
He was about 12-years-old when he came to Sitka, he said. It was there that he took wood carving classes with various people as well as one on how to work with copper.
“I could never make (my designs) look like what I saw in my mind,” Kunz said.
He did wood carving until he was in his 20s, making small poles.
Kunz learned from a man he called “Smith” the intricacies of carvings, especially with metal. Smith would take Canadian quarters and melt them down for their silver. It only took three quarter for a bracelet, something he was never able to master, Kunz said. He would use just a quarter’s worth on an earring. Smith was also able to measure bracelets with just his eyes, Kunz recalled, and could perfectly file them down to fit his chosen design.
Kunz’s first orders came from his parents, but his clientele soon expanded. When he met his wife Percy, she wore two of his bracelets.
He recalled a time when he was designing a wolf and was stopped by another person who had had a different teacher. You’re doing it wrong, Kunz said the man told him, and then told him who his teacher was and how they never did it his way.
“I never told any of my students, ‘This way. This is the only way. This is the correct way,’” Kunz said. He didn’t want people to simply copy him. He encouraged students to develop their own style and signature.
When Cheney got up to speak she offered wisdom she had learned from her own elders, but also said sometimes the ancestors speak through her students.
“My students will tell me something that I have been struggling to see. Their eyes are new, their fingers are new and they’ll just say or do something and I’ll go, ‘Do it again, do it again so I can see how you did it.’ I have to be in a good place to get that from my students,” Cheney said. “Once you start teaching you also begin learning.”
Much of the knowledge Cheney passed down to the gathered audience was a philosophy on attitude, self-care and preparation, and how a weaver must approach craft with no anger or bitterness in them; otherwise, it passes down to the recipient of the piece.
“You want to taste the sunshine … Don’t do it when you’re angry. Don’t do it when you’re tired … This insight from our elders reminds us to take care of ourselves when we have work to do. When you’re angry, hurt, or sad, take a break,” Cheney advised.
To keep in the right frame of mind, she remembers to be thankful for the natural resources that go into her pieces, and to adhere to her elders’ words on harvesting to ensure she takes no more than she needs out of respect for the environment. Whether otter fur or roots, a life was given for her to create her art and share it with the community, she said. A weaver must also be mindful of the seasons, to know if they need to order materials from out of town or can harvest them locally, she said.
Elders left specific instructions for those who harvest locally: a person can only harvest from one tree twice in their lifetime, she said.
“We do not know how many weavers harvested before us, or how many will come after,” Cheney said.
When looking for a place to harvest, look for a sandy place near the trees because it keeps the roots running straight, she said. There are many roots to choose from, but don’t get greedy. Harvest only what you can process in one day.
It can take 6-8 hours to dig out the roots, prepare them, start a fire and dry each piece. 24 ounces is the maximum one can reasonably harvest in a day and it takes more than that for a hat, so expect multiple outings.
Master weavers have been able to sell their hats for up to $30,000, she said, adding, “I have not come to that place yet.”
She showed a robe she weaved for her daughter called “Weaving Our World.” It took her many years to make as she considered the design and symbolism in it, like the leadership from the geese formation.
“I find in weaving, we haven’t changed much since we started weaving thousands of years ago. It’s still the same weave,” Cheney said.
There were obstacles along the way, but she kept at it. Near the beginning of the process of making the robe, she had cancer and had to stop. Later she had to undo a section of the robe when the weave began to narrow and had to be redone.
There is something peaceful about weaving for her. When she picks up her work, the world falls away, she said. The stories she weaves into her work will be passed down to her family.
“Our worldview is changing so dramatically in our community,” she said, commenting on how current weavers are using new materials in their work like duct tape and garbage bags and linen, which has encouraged her to try new things too, like using plastic bottles.
The next event in the Art of Place series will be on “Teaching our Children,” from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m on March 31 on the Juneau Campus’ Glacier View Room. The third event “Connecting our Generations” will be from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on April 21, at the same place. Both will conclude with a potluck.
The Art of Place series is funded by the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation.
•Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Clara Miller at email@example.com.