Renowned Chilkat weaver Clarissa Rizal dies of cancer

In this file photo from August, Clarissa Rizal, left, and Della Cheney, right, work on the "Weavers Across the Water" robe.

Renowned Chilkat and Ravenstail weaver Clarissa Rizal, a Raven of the T’akdeintaan, died Wednesday after a battle with cancer.

Rizal apprenticed with Jennie Thlunaut, a weaver from Klukwan. She began her apprenticeship when Thlunaut was 95 years old. After Thlunaut’s death, Rizal was so grieved she was unable to weave; she began again when she was asked to teach Thlunaut’s granddaughters.

“Not so long ago, we were in danger of losing the knowledge on how to make our sacred Chilkat weavings,” said a Sealaska Heritage Institute Facebook post about Rizal’s death. “We as Native people owe a debt of gratitude to Clarissa for mastering our sacred art traditions and for teaching others to weave.”

[Weaving: ‘A very powerful way of life’]

Rizal this year won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; it’s an award Thlunaut also won. She traveled to Washington in September to receive it.

Rizal also this year spearheaded the “Weavers Across the Water” robe. By the time of its completion, 44 Chilkat and Ravenstail weavers sent squares Rizal wove into a robe with a “mating loons” border; six other weavers helped in other ways. The robe was no small undertaking; she estimated she spent more than 300 hours just weaving her portions of the robe, and she and fellow weavers were working on it even the day it was completed.

She presented the robe to master carver Wayne Price at the dedication of Xunaa Shuká Hít, the Huna tribal house in Glacier Bay, in August. Price danced in the robe for the first time. It is to be used for the maiden voyages of canoes around the Northwest Coast.

[Weavers complete Chilkat and Ravenstail robe to be used first in Glacier Bay ceremony]

When Rizal traveled to Washington for the NEA award, she placed the robe on President Barack Obama’s shoulders.

Rizal also won numerous other awards in her life, and worked to pass on her knowledge. She wrote “Jennie Weaves an Apprentice — A Chilkat Weaver’s Handbook.” In 2008, the book received a HAIL (Honoring Alaska’s Indigenous Literature) award.

Rizal’s daughters, Lily Hope and Ursala Hudson, are weavers.

Her death comes less than a week after the Dec. 2 death of renowned Ravenstail weaver Teri Rofkar. It’s that day, according to a Caringbridge post from Rizal’s daughter Ursala Hudson, that Rizal took a turn for the worse.

Rizal was a deeply spiritual person. When the Capital City Weekly interviewed Rizal in August, she spoke of the way Chilkat weaving impacted her.

She said she has worked in many mediums, but “never experienced an art form that has such a strong spirit to it … it chose me. I didn’t choose it … and when I chose it (back), my life seemed to fall into place.”

In this file photo from August, mother and daughter weavers — Lily Hope, left, works on a robe as her mother, Clarissa Rizal, works on the “Weavers Across the Waters” robe.

In this file photo from August, Lily Hope wears the “Weavers Across the Water” robe during its progress (the bottom had yet to be completed.) She was one of the weavers who contributed a square to the robe, which was an idea of her mother, master weaver Clarissa Rizal, who spent the last month putting the pieces together and weaving the border. Rizal passed away on Wednesday.

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