The sound of dozens of small shoes tapping the ground in rhythm to Tlingit songs filled the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s clan house as young students from the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy program at Harborview Elementary School performed a Chilkat dancing-of-the-robes ceremony that has been over two years in the making.
The ceremony, which brought more than 50 people in person and hundreds more online to witness the event in Juneau Wednesday afternoon, marked the culmination of an over two-year-long apprenticeship and a two-week-long Chilkat weaving intensive workshop that occurred throughout January. It all started with multiple-medium Juneau-based artist Lily Wooshkindein Da.áat Hope, who started offering lessons virtually during the pandemic to expand the knowledge of the craft which reached dozens of student weavers from across Southeast Alaska — and across the country.
The child-sized Chilkat dancing robe made by the students was inspired both in both spirit and skill by the renowned master weavers Jennie Thlunaut and Clarissa Rizal, Hope’s late mother, who passed on their knowledge of the craft to Hope and now through the efforts of the workshop, will continue to teach the craft to a growing number of weavers.
“It’s so amazing,” said Joanne Seyl, one of Hope’s students who sat alongside the other student weavers at the event. Seyl traveled all the way from Maryland to experience the workshop and ceremony after stumbling upon Hope’s class and falling in love with the craft and the people she learned it with.
Wednesday’s event was both a ceremony and a history lesson on Chilkat weaving, which is known as one of the most complex weaving techniques in the world and in recent years was considered to be an endangered art practice, according to SHI.
The process of not only learning the skills to create a piece but also obtaining the materials traditionally used, mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark, is extremely intricate and time-consuming. During the event, Hope described the ups and downs in finding her way to learn the craft herself and the difficulties she faced in finding courage after the passing of her mother.
However, thanks to Hope’s commitment and hard work, alongside Shgendootan George and Ricky Tagaban who also mentored the student weavers, the craft has been able to be taught to the more than 30 students who attended her lessons over the past two years.
“It’s such an amazing experience,” said Jackie Pata, one of the student weavers and first vice president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “The robes came to life — some of the kids were dancing like their ancestors were inside their bodies.”
Pata said being a part of the workshop and seeing all the group’s hard work come to life during the dance was “overwhelming” and said she is grateful for the experience and the women she shared it with.
The children danced to three songs while donning the Chilkat robes created by the student weavers. Molly Box, Interim Principal for TCLL said the children were “so excited” to be a part of the ceremony and learn about the craft and the importance behind it.
“It’s just such a special thing to be a part of,” she said.
After the end of the ceremony, Hope said she is grateful for all the support the workshop has received from the community and all the people who attended the event.
“I am overwhelmed with gratitude for all the hearts and hands that made this possible,” she said. “There’s hope — I feel like we are moving together and have strength for preserving this artform and letting the world know we’re still making Chilkat robes.”
The robes are now featured for viewing at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. The exhibit is titled “For Our Children: Chilkat Regalia Woven in the Lineage of Jennie Thlunaut and Clarissa Rizal.”