Haida woman releases book on traditional weaving

Della Cheney. (Photo by Alfie Price)

Della Cheney. (Photo by Alfie Price)

Della Cheney’s book “Weaving Our World”, published on May 26, is a reminder of the importance traditional practices can, and should, still have on the world today.

Being born and raised in Kake gave Cheney an understanding of the importance family and community has. Her parents Mona and Thomas L. Jackson Sr. each played important roles in the Kake community. Her father was a fisherman and a postmaster while her mother was an elementary school teacher. Cheney had a total of 19 siblings, eight of whom were children her parents had adopted.

“I learned a lot about teamwork from my parents,” Cheney said. “Learning how to set priorities with my family, with only so much money and with a lot of kids to feed. So that’s what I’ve learned how to do. Share the money I do have with my family.”

Cheney began weaving under the instruction of her grandmother, Lucy Ingram, and can remember helping her collect cedar bark in the eighth grade. Cheney and Ingram shared the same Haida name Sdaath K’was. Much of Ingram’s knowledge was passed on during her 106 years of life.

“My grandmother was my drive,” Cheney said.

Cheney began her academic weaving career in 1993 at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Her instructor was Janice Criswell. Her move to Juneau, however, was originally for the benefit of her two daughters, Gale and Elizabeth. Cheney longed for her daughters to experience a different lifestyle with a larger community so they could have more competition in their lives. Cheney was used to a life of love and nurturing from living in Kake, with a reported population of 576 in 2014, where everyone was either blood related or was related somehow through the clan. Moving forced her to learn to budget her money.

“In a small community … you shared everything,” Cheney said. “I could go next door and trade for deer or seal meat. In a larger community, I found that there is not much trading going on. I had to make money to buy food.”

In 1981, Cheney worked in the Governor’s office as the Executive Secretary to the Office of Management and Budget. She worked there for 10 years, and then Floyd Dryden Middle School welcomed her to their ranks as a cultural educator for another 10 years. Cheney also spent some time as a Native liaison at the Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka from 1997-2000. Cheney graduated from high school in 1966 and finished her sociology degree at the University of Hawaii in 1995. She also participated in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community fellowship program from the fall of 1990 to the spring of 1991.

“I’m a lifetime learner,” Cheney said.

Her main drive for weaving came from her mother.

“I wanted to weave while my mother was still alive,” Cheney said. “My mother left us in 2005. But she knew I was weaving and she was really happy about that. She was a real mentor to me and kept me going on a lot of different things.”

Now Cheney is skilled in multiple forms of weaving such as Ravens Tail (one-dimensional weaving for items such as robes), cedar bark weaving (a three-dimensional weave that creates items like baskets), spruce root weaving (also three-dimensional), and Chilkat weaving (one-dimensional that can become round or any shape once you remove it from the loom). Cheney enjoys cedar bark weaving saying she can weave 20 days out of a 30-day month this way. She practices all the other forms of weaving; however, she is only beginning to learn how to Chilkat weave.

What inspired Cheney most about Chilkat weaving was how one Chilkat robe or blanket could be cut into 15 to 20 different pieces of regalia.

“It takes time to learn to weave,” Cheney said. “It takes time to learn. I’ve learned Chilkat weaving from different weavers around Alaska and Canada. Some of my cousins are Chilkat weavers so I’ll listen to them and watch. Some are my teachers, some are my friends, but we all share our tricks together to do things easier.”

Cheney began to teach weaving at Floyd Dryden in 1995. Her teaching has taken her to work with the entire Juneau School District, Sealaska Heritage Institute, and Goldbelt Heritage. What she does is referred to as place-based learning.

“It reaches all students, not just Natives. … They are from Alaska and they are learning how to be practicing weavers or carvers or storytellers. All those programs come through their system that teaches them about the Alaska they live in,” Cheney said. “They can learn what kind of place they come from. It’s so important. That’s my major, major reason for teaching. I love it!”

Although Cheney is now retired, she still teaches throughout Juneau.

She has been working on “Weaving Our World” since 1995, writing things down about her cultural life and why she weaves today. She mentioned how some people weave because it’s their livelihood, some people weave for collectors, and then there are people like Cheney who weave to support their families, communities and friends. Cheney gifts all of her woven items away. One woven hat can reach up to $3,000.

“Most of our family can’t afford to pay that kind of money for our regalia,” Cheney said. “That’s my reason to weave today, to give what I weave as gifts.”

In her book, Cheney includes seven other artists, their work and stories, specifically for their love of weaving and their drive to learn more about it. There are also the stories of the two Raven’s Tail robes that Cheney wove as a reminder for everyone that, “we create stories when we are weaving. … I wove those so people can begin to develop stories about things they weave.” Her youngest daughter Elizabeth is composing a song so that those robes can have a song and a story.

“The reason why is because our elders remind us that material things don’t last, but our stories and our songs will live on and on as people remember them and use them as part of our celebration,” Cheney said. “I want people to get out that weaving isn’t just an art, it’s a way of life that we still practice because of living, dancing, singing, and sharing, and caring with our community.”

Respecting tradition is focused on in “Weaving Our World,” but also that there is a spirit in these art forms. Cheney spoke about how when harvesting resources such as cedar bark she talks to the tree people and thanks them for giving their skin; the weaving process is a healing experience for her and the piece. She never weaves when she is angry or sad because only good energy is “bent” into that item. Cheney keeps in mind the person the piece is intended for while weaving and gives the gift in a good spirit. All of these things add to the piece, making it so regalia brings comfort.

“And that is a wonderful spirit,” Cheney said. “We never create alone, because of our cultural memory. … We never do things alone because we are practicing the technique our ancestors left us. It’s not ours, it’s what our people left to us.”

The existing book currently available online through Amazon or Barns and Noble is being revised and an edited version will be released in September, and then she will plan to have a reading and signing at Juneau’s Hearthside Books.

The writing process has been a journey for Cheney that has taught her new things about herself and has made her more comfortable with who she is and what she has to share. She sees herself writing another book in the future, she said.



• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer living in Juneau.



Cheney’s parents Mona and Thomas L. Jackson Sr. at Celebration in 1988. Image courtesy of Della Cheney.

Cheney’s parents Mona and Thomas L. Jackson Sr. at Celebration in 1988. Image courtesy of Della Cheney.

Cheney’s daughter Dr. Gail Irene Cheney and Juris Dr. Elizabeth Medicine Crow wearing the Raven’s Tail Robes Cheney made for them. Picture by Burt Jackson.

Cheney’s daughter Dr. Gail Irene Cheney and Juris Dr. Elizabeth Medicine Crow wearing the Raven’s Tail Robes Cheney made for them. Picture by Burt Jackson.

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