Della Cheney’s hands didn’t begin to weave until she was in her 40s. But her mind had been working on it her whole life.
When she was 13, she and her mother visited her grandmother in Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia). She vividly remembers standing in the forest watching the tiny woman pull long strips of cedar bark from the towering trees, the “bird’s nest” mess of her grandmother’s weaving area, and the beautiful smell of cedar that startled her with its sweetness when she first walked in her grandmother’s home. It would be more than 30 years before Cheney followed her grandmother’s path, but during that time her memories were simmering under the surface, preparing the way for the weaving to come through her when she was ready.
“It’s not something I do just to do it,” Cheney said during a recent Art of Place presentation on her weaving at UAS. “It’s constant and ongoing and coming from love from me.”
Cheney, from Kake, is Tlingit on her father’s side and Haida on her mother’s. She learned to weave at the University of Alaska Southeast in 1993, and has since received multiple honors for her cedar bark, spruce root and Ravenstail weavings, including two Sealaska Heritage Institute Juried Art Show awards and, most recently, a Mayor’s Award for the Arts. She’s also taught many others to weave — more than 150 — and leads a weekly weaving group at Fireweed Place.
Cheney is quick to point out, however, that her students are also teachers.
In the case of Eileen Wagner, one of Cheney’s most active students, this is quite literally true. Wagner has learned so much in the six years she’s been weaving that she’s taken on some students herself.
Like Cheney, Wagner came to weaving late in life. In fact, for most of her life she didn’t even know the practice existed. Originally from Haines, Wagner was sent away to Catholic Mission School as a girl, and forcibly prevented from maintaining her connections to her culture. Though she spent much of her adult life in a trade she loved — that of a fisherman — Wagner, now in her 70s, said rediscovering one of the traditions of her culture through Cheney has changed her life.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Wagner said of learning to make cedar bark hats. “It’s helped me through a lot. It makes you feel so good. I don’t even wash my hands after weaving because I love the smell.” She laughed.
Wagner has completed more than 10 cedar bark hats so far. Next week she is going to begin a Ravenstail class with Kay Parker in Douglas, and though she’s a bit apprehensive, she said she can’t wait.
“I just love doing (cedar bark weaving),” she said. “And I know I’m going to love that too.”
Weavers teaching weavers
Wagner helps Cheney teach the group at Fireweed Place, but there are no formal lessons going on. Rather, group members work on current projects in an atmosphere of support and lively camaraderie, getting help from more experienced weavers when they get stuck or have a question.
“We learn from each other,” said weaver Fausto Paulo. “We all share. Everybody shares.”
At last Sunday’s class, Chilkat weavers sat beside Ravenstail weavers who sat beside cedar bark weavers. Those who knew cedar bark weaving techniques were learning Ravenstail. Others were Ravenstail weavers learning Chilkat techniques. And Chilkat weaver Clarissa Rizal, who had taught half the room to weave Chilkat, was working on her first cedar bark hat with help from Cheney.
Cheney said helping others learn can also help the teacher remember and hone their skill.
“If you try to teach it, it becomes more set in your mind,” she said.
Similarly, helping others can be a motivator, as it was for Paulo. He had let his Ravenstail weaving lapse, but was encouraged to get back into it when his friend Mary Ebona-Miller, also in the group, asked him for help.
“I just started up again. Mary got me re-interested because she wanted to start to do some weaving.”
Ebona-Miller said Paulo’s help has been invaluable — in terms of her mental attitude as well as more technical consideration. A proficient seamstress who specializes in traditional sewing, she took to Ravenstail quickly, calling on Paulo when she got stuck.
“He’s a very big help,” she said. “He’s very patient.”
Sunday, Ebona-Miller was working on a Ravenstail bag with a box of daylight design. Paulo was also working on a Ravenstail bag, but one with a lightning design, while referring to a book he got from Patty Fiorella.
Ebona-Miller and Paulo both also learned Chilkat weaving from Rizal.
“They say don’t do Chilkat first, do Ravenstail first, then Chilkat. I did it backwards.” Ebona-Miller said.
While Paulo helped Ebona-Miller with Ravenstail, Wagner helped Dorothy Owen complete the last row of weaving around the outer edge of her cedar bark hat, in a technique known as six-twining.
“She’s building a trap to catch a fish,” Wagner explained. “There’s the fish.” She pointed to a thick strand of red cedar bark about to be encircled by multiple strands of thinner yellow cedar. Yellow cedar is often used as the weft, or active weaver, and is usually thinner and more pliable than the wider strips of red cedar used for the warp.
The completed hat will be Owen’s second.
“I’m really enjoying it,” she said. “It’s relaxing and plus I get to be with all my friends.”
Like most projects underway around the room, Owen’s finished product will be much more than a static work of art; it will be a functional item intended for a member of her family, one imbued with personal and cultural significance.
“My granddaughter already has the (first) one I made, and my daughter’s claimed this one — I’m going to have to make another one for me,” she said, laughing.
When not helping others, Wagner was also working on her own cedar bark hat project, designed with a curving line of false-embroidery she had dyed a lovely pale blue-green to represent an ocean wave. Another strip of red cedar, this one dyed off-white, undulated above the blue-green, representing the crest of the wave.
Wagner said she prefers to give her completed work to family members or to trade her work with other artists. Her most recent trade was for a beautiful Aleut beaded headdress she intends to give her little sister.
“It’s hard to sell, it’s easier to trade, so that’s what I do.“
Across the room, Percy Kunz was also at work on a cedar bark hat. She too gives most of her hats to family.
“I’ve made one for my granddaughter, I made my husband one, and I might have to claim the red cedar one,” she said with a laugh.
Her red cedar hat, made with no yellow cedar at all, is one of her favorites.
Kunz also does beadwork, animal skin sewing, and Ravenstail weaving, which she learned when she was 65.
Lately she’s been enjoying sharing her knowledge of Ravenstail with Elijah Marks, an eighth grader at Dzantik’I Heeni and the youngest person in the room last Sunday.
Marks, whose father is carver Paul Marks, said he’s always been interested in traditional arts and that his grandmother’s beading caught his attention was he was only 4.
“When I was growing up, if I saw my grandmother beading, I would just sit there and look at it for about an hour,” he said. “Then I started watching how she did it.”
Sunday, Marks was working on completing a small square cedar bark basket, hoping to get it done in time for Friday’s show. He had also brought a Ravenstail project to the group, and showed his progress to Kunz.
“Good work,” she said.
Before weaving begins
Though different, cedar bark weaving and Ravenstail styles have the same basic twining stitch in common, and traditionally share a common ingredient: cedar. The mountain goat wool traditionally used in the warp of Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving is spun with cedar to provide strength and longevity.
“Its amazing how smart our ancestors were, they did that to keep the moths and bugs and everything out of there,” Kunz said. “Isn’t that neat? I’m so impressed by our elders, all the things that they came up with.”
In contemporary Ravenstail or Chilkat weavings, Merino or other wool is often used in place of the mountain goat/cedar thigh-spun wool, giving weavers an alternative to the long process of preparation.
There is no substitute material for red and yellow cedar bark weavers, however. Both materials are very hard to come by -- expensive to buy and extremely labor intensive to make.
Kunz has gone through the harvesting process with Cheney, and was impressed by how rigorous and time-consuming it was.
“It’s hard work. Della and I worked hard at it.”
Pam Credo-Hayes, at work on a cedar bark basket across the room from Kunz, has also harvested her own materials. She said when she started weaving, she had no idea what she was in for.
“My auntie said, ‘Do you want to learn how to weave?’ … And I said, ‘Yes!’ And I caught on really fast. Then she said, ‘You want to learn how to harvest?’” Credo-Hayes laughed and raised her eyebrows. “Now that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”
About 75 percent of the work involved in making a cedar bark hat is preparation of the materials, Credo-Hayes said.
Making matters even more complicated, cedar doesn’t grow here. Yellow cedar can be found as close as Hoonah, but Cheney said Kake is the farthest north one can find red cedar. Traditionally, materials were often traded. Weavers in this area also harvested spruce root, another traditional material in basketry, and one Cheney also uses in her work.
Credo-Hayes has tried both cedar bark and spruce root techniques and said spruce root is a little more difficult to work with.
“I think the spruce root is a little more sassy,” she said. “When you’re doing stuff it kicks back on you. The same way with cutting it. You have to know what you’re doing with spruce root.”
The fingers remember
Also at Sunday’s group meeting were two new Chilkat weavers, Debra O’Gara and Crystal Rogers, both of whom learned from Rizal. The women were working on two versions of the same project, at slightly different points. Both were feeling apprehensive about starting the next part of the design, an eye shape. Tradition dictates that, once begun, circles cannot be abandoned until completed.
“You can’t go to bed that night with a circle open,” Rogers said. “You have to take it all out if you’re not done.”
Eye shapes are also hard to get right, Rogers said.
Luckily, Rizal was present and available if they ran into trouble. Both women said they did not want to do it wrong and then have to unweave what they’d done.
“If you make a mistake you have to take it out,” O’Gara said. Though no one would probably be able to see a small mistake in the weaving, the weaver would always know it was there.
“It’s really the weaver that has to live with it,” Rogers said.
“It will jump out at you every time you look at it,” O’Gara continued.
O’Gara, who also enjoys cedar bark and Ravenstail weaving, said Chilkat can be daunting because it takes so long to finish a project.
“I’ve been missing basket weaving. I feel like I need to put this away and weave a basket just to get it out of my system -- because I know it better and I can actually get it finished."
In spite of the challenge, both women said they’d really loved learning Chilkat this past summer. Rogers said she felt mentally ready to weave months before she could actually carve out the time to learn.
“I’d been feeling for months and months that I wanted to weave. My hands were like, ‘OK, hurry up and learn so we can weave!’”
Sometimes, the women said, when they think they’ve forgotten what to do next, their fingers will begin weaving in spite of their brain’s stall.
“Your fingers remember,” O’Gara said.
Ravenstail weaving is an older form than Chilkat, and one that was nearly lost to time. Once Chilkat styles became popular in the late 1700s, Ravenstail techniques were put aside. The form might have died out completely if not for a chance discovery by Canadian artist Cheryl Samuel. While working on a book on Chilkat weaving in the 1980s, Samuel was given a box containing an amazing partial robe of a style she’d never seen before. Intrigued, she did some research and discovered it was the Ravenstail style, and that only a handful robes still existed. She traveled to Russia to study them and eventually wove her own, essentially rescuing the technique from obscurity. Samuel’s book on the form is still an invaluable resource for weavers. Delores Churchill, of Ketchikan, who was one of Cheney’s teachers, learned directly from Samuel. So did Kay Parker, a weaver in Douglas who also hosts a weaving group.
Both styles of weaving are, like cedar bark weaving, done entirely with the fingers. A loom is used, but its only real purpose is to provide a horizontal bar from which to hang the wool.
Chilkat is different from Ravenstail in several ways, most noticeably in its incorporation of complex totemic shapes that can include curves and circles – very unusual in weaving. Ravenstail uses geometric forms and patterns. Another difference is that Chilkat is woven in vertical sections, while Ravenstail is woven in rows that extend across the entire piece. The colors and patterns of the two forms can also be very different.
Rizal, who weaves both Ravenstail and Chilkat, said the former can be mentally easier on the weaver — an assertion that was met with humorous resistance from Cheney.
“Ravenstail is easier on the soul than Chilkat,” Rizal said.
“Sometimes,” Cheney countered.
“Yes, sometimes,” Rizal agreed. “Ravenstail, oh, man. if you make a mistake on Ravenstail you have to take it all out. … in Chilkat, if you make a mistake, depending on where it is, you can fix it. There’s ways of fixing it. You don’t have to take the whole shebang out.”
Rizal learned Chilkat weaving from renowned weaver Jennie Thlunaut, and has won many awards for her weavings, including several Sealaska Heritage Institute Juried Art Show honors.
On Sunday, she was working on a cedar bark hat — her very first — a project begun with Cheney.
’Bigger than us’
Cheney said for her learning to weave was very much a process of clearing her mind of negative thoughts and allowing the “beautiful thoughts, prayerful thoughts” to come through. If she’s troubled, she has a hard time weaving. Her brother helped her make the choice to put weaving in the forefront of her life.
“(When I was involved in politics) I spent more time being mad and unhappy. My brother said, ‘How’s your weaving?’ And I said, ‘I’m not weaving,’ and he said, ‘How come?’ I said, ‘Because I’m too grumpy,’ and he said, ‘Well, you’ve got to make up your mind. Are you going to weave, or are you going to be in politics?’ And I said, ‘I think I’d rather weave.’” Cheney laughed.
Though Southeast Alaska Native weaving was in danger of being lost to cultural upheaval and change over the course of the last 200 years, teachers like Cheney are helping ensure traditional weaving continues its current resurrection. As new weavers draw on ancient techniques while creating their own designs, past and present become interwoven in the weft and warp of their work, engaging them in a cultural conversation extends back thousands of years.
“These things are bigger than us. And they will outlive us,” Cheney said.
Cheney and her students will be the featured artists at the Juneau Arts & Humanties Council gallery this month. An opening reception will be held from 4:30-7 p.m.Friday.
Contact Arts Editor Amy Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org