The Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum is releasing a book to celebrate the end of a special exhibition of Ravenstail robes, a weaving technique that was largely forgotten for over 100 years.
“The Ravenstail weaving technique, that had pretty much gone extinct,” said Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the state museum. “In the early ‘90s, there was a lot of research on the few surviving robes and efforts to bring those traditions back.”
Henrikson is one of the authors of a companion book to the museum’s special exhibition of old and new Ravenstail robes, “The Spirit Wraps Around You: Northern Northwest Coast Native Textiles, ” which ends Oct. 9. The book contains all the information contained on the display panels at the museum and more, Henrikson said, with high-quality photos of all the exhibit’s pieces.
The exhibit has several robes made by modern Alaska Native weavers who’ve revived the technique over the past few decades, Henrikson said, and it was a rare opportunity to see the new robes alongside the old.
There are only about a dozen existing ancient Ravenstail robes, Henrikson said, and most of them are in museums on the east coast of North America and in Europe. Henrikson said the two robes on display at state museum are on loan from other museums, one from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the other from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
“We went to a lot of effort so people can see what a master quality robe is,” Henrikson said. “A lot of the old pieces on not on display, they’re too fragile, they can only be displayed for short periods of time.”
The book — named after the exhibit —is co-authored by Henrikson, Lani Hotch, Marie Oldfield and Evelyn Vanderhoop, and contains background information on the weaving technique and dyes that go into making a robe.
The exhibit began May 9, and Henrickson said attendance was lower than hoped. Henrikson said he hoped Juneau residents would visit before Oct. 9, calling the exhibit a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“One of the main themes of the exhibit was to show how these objects are used over the years and by the people who ended collecting them,” Henrikson said. “A lot of people today would see this as any other art, but they’re sacred objects, they’re both art and sacred objects.”
There are Ravenstail robes form Southeast Alaska in collections at the British Museum in London, and the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia, Henrikson said. International law around sacred relics is complicated, Henrikson said, and when the museum borrowed the Royal Ontario Museum’s robe, the museum was required to have the U.S. State Department certify it wouldn’t be seized while in the U.S.
“That’s a sign of how treasured these things are and that came from here,” Henrikson said.
Henrikson said the book will be available for order online and though the museum’s store had closed during the pandemic, staff were looking for a way to sell the books in the museum lobby.
“The Spirit Wraps Around You: Northern Northwest Coast Native Textiles” is available from the Friends of the Alaska State Library, Archives website: foslam.org/store. $40 ($35 for Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum members).
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.