Joe Zuboff, right, beats a drum during a ceremony celebrating the return of a Chilkat robe to the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

Robe weaves its way back home

It’s been gone for more than 100 years, but now it’s home.

Tradition, love and healing filled the clan house at the Walter Soboleff Building of the Sealaska Heritage Institute on Saturday as a more than 100-year-old Chilkat robe — lost for decades to the clan that made it — was given to SHI to preserve and study.

“This is for healing, for those who are not feeling well. This is for strength, for those who are not feeling strong,” said Native elder Paul Marks during the ceremony. Marks, joined by generations of his clan on stage, then stomped his feet to clear out any negative energy.

It was with some emotion as Native elders and clan leaders, who were invited to speak at the clan house, welcomed back the relic they thought had been lost for good.

“This is a happy time,” Joe Zuboff, of the Raven clan, said. Zuboff led a ceremony to “breath life” into the robe. He beat a drum and sang while a man danced behind the robe, a traditional hat bobbing above the robe’s edge.

“My congratulations, my feelings of joy for you in sharing of the witnessing of this most awesome ceremony,” one elder said. “It is good that we share with each other and are always on hand to offer congratulations and recognition.”

Chilkat robes take dozens of hours to weave. Many of the traditional methods for weaving such robes have been lost over the years and many of the robes themselves have fallen into private art markets. The addition of the robe to SHI’s collection will help experts identify the traditional methods used in its creation.

“This is a really special occasion for us,” another elder said. “We don’t often get things back. Somebody said earlier they couldn’t sleep. This is such a big deal. It really is.”

The robe took an unusual route to return home. Purchased in the 1990s, the Jacobsen family of Seattle had the robe displayed for many years in their home before their daughter learned about the importance of Chilkat robes in a history class. She then lobbied her family vigorously to return it.

The robe could have fetched thousands of dollars on the private market and no federal law requires the return of such items to the original owners.

“It’s emotional. It isn’t really all that easy when something comes to us that we know belongs to our people. It’s so important, to have this kind of thing happen, and you don’t know what this thing cost — it took time,” Native elder Nathan Jackson said. “It takes time.”

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or

Alison Marks speaks during a ceremony at the Sealaska Heritage Institute on Saturday. SHI unveiled a newly-donated Chilkat robe during the ceremony. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)

Members of the Southeast Native community stand next to a more than 100-year-old Chilkat robe during a Saturday ceremony at the Sealaska Heritage Institute. (Kevin Gullufsen | Juneau Empire)