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Hoonah weavers study ancestors' work at Smithsonian Institution

Posted: March 29, 2012 - 12:07am

Five master weavers from Hoonah traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to study hundreds of Tlingit and Haida woven artifacts in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections.

Huna Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the preservation of Huna Tlingit culture, coordinated the trip in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices program to augment a series of weaving workshops held in Hoonah last year. Huna Heritage Foundation, the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution funded the trip.

The master weavers — Chris Greenwald, Marjorie Peterson, Darlene See, Harlena Warford and Daphne Wright — focused specifically on spruce-root woven basketry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of Natural History. While they pre-selected several hundred items they wanted to examine, the group had access to the entirety of the museums’ Tlingit, Haida and Pacific Northwest indigenous collections during their five days at the facilities.

They were able to handle and sketch or photograph items and inspect them with magnifying glasses and ultraviolet light, which helps pick up faded designs. The group expected to draw new inspiration from the pieces, including baskets, clan hats, mats, woven bags and more.

“We’ll be able to see old patterns and techniques,” said Darlene See, who went on her first spruce-root gathering trip to weave a basket in 1993. “To be able to bring this information back to Hoonah is exciting.”

In return, the Smithsonian staff expects to learn more about conservation methods, the names of certain patterns or techniques and perhaps more precise details on the provenance of some items.

“These weavers have a lot of training and experience and that is a good foundation for them to really delve deep,” said Eric Hollinger, a repatriation case officer at the National Museum of Natural History.

Each of the master weavers has participated in Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Northwest Coast Art Certificate Program with a specialty in basketry or attended Northwest Coast Art Basketry classes at University of Alaska Southeast.

“This will be an enriching and inspirational opportunity for both the weavers and the community,” said Kathryn Hurtley, Huna Heritage Foundation executive director. Upon the weavers’ return, they will present what they learned at a clan workshop in late April. More weaving workshops and classes are in development as well, where this information can be taught. “We are inspiring a new group of weavers,” Hurtley said.

Through a partnership between Huna Heritage Foundation, the National Park Service and other supporters, such as the Hoonah Liquor Board, the Hoonah Indian Association, the U.S. Forest Service and Lutheran Indian Ministries, these master weavers have been mentoring two Hoonah community members each since last year. The entire group gathered spruce roots in Tongass National Forest last June as a part of a four-day weaving workshop and are planning a similar retreat this year.

The National Park Service plans to commission several woven pieces from the weavers for a traditional Tlingit tribal house being built in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

Joshua Bell, the curator of globalization at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, would also like to see the master weavers return to Washington D.C. for public weaving demonstrations. “We hope this is just the beginning of our relationship,” Bell said.

For more information on the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices Program, go to recoveringvoices.si.edu.

Huna Heritage Foundation was founded in 1991 and is the non-profit arm of the Huna Totem Corporation, the Native village corporation owned by more than 1,300 shareholders. The foundation supports the Huna Tlingit community through a number of programs that preserve and promote the culture and history and by providing scholarship funds to Huna Tlingit youth seeking a higher education. For more information, visit www.HunaHeritage.org.

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