Haida master weaver Delores Churchill was this week’s speaker for the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s lunchtime lecture series, offered on Tuesdays throughout November in recognition of Alaska Native and Native American Heritage Month.
Churchill, a renowned artist who has many students in communities throughout Southeast Alaska and beyond, covered plenty of ground in her one-hour talk, reaching back into the 1960s and 1970s to trace the beginnings of the rebirth of traditional weaving in Southeast Alaska, and bringing that history up through the present day. At 83, Churchill has many personal memories and relationships to share, and at the lecture accompanied her stories with slides of many of the people and weavings she was describing.
Churchill learned to weave from her mother, master weaver Selina Peratrovich (a strict teacher who, she said, burned her daughter’s baskets for the first five years of her apprenticeship), and from well-known weavers Jennie Thlunaut and Cheryl Samuel, who is credited with bringing Ravenstail weaving back into practice after it had become dormant.
Churchill said after just one class from Samuel, she was obsessed.
“I said, ‘I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, it’s like I’m in love,’” Churchill recalled saying to Samuel. “Would you take me on as your apprentice?”
Samuel said yes and Churchill went on to become proficient at the form. She is also known for her Chilkat weavings and for her basketry, including her spruce root work. In brief comments following Churchill’s talk, SHI president Rosita Worl told the audience that Churchill was largely responsible for bringing back the art of spruce root basketry, and asked the Tlingit members of the audience to stand and thank the weaver for her huge contributions to keeping that cultural tradition and other forms of weaving alive.
Churchill has also made a cedar bark robe, with her daughter, believed to be the first one woven in 200 years, but said Tuesday she’ll never do it again due to the difficult nature of the materials, the time it takes to make one, and the wear and tear the bark put on her hands.
Churchill has had the opportunity to study many old weavings in museums around the world and said she makes sure to study the backs of the weavings as well as the fronts, to gain as much knowledge as she can about how they were made.
Churchill’s awards include a Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist Award, a Governor’s Award for the Arts, an Alaska State Legislative Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Artist residency. Her work can be seen in museums throughout Alaska and in the Lower 48.
In addition to highlighting the relatively recent revitalization of traditional arts such as weaving, Churchill’s talk pointed up the impact that individuals have had in reversing the course of history, such as carver Robert Davidson, who helped raise the first totem pole in Ketchikan in nearly 100 years in Haida Gwaii in 1969, paving the way for other carvers.
Churchill herself has reached many, many students, including her daughters Holly Churchill, April Churchill, and Evelyn Vanderhoop.
Sealaska Heritage Institute will host the final lecture in the series next Tuesday, when they welcome Aldona Jonaitis, Emeritus Director of Museum of the North, who will present “Three Hundred Years of Tlingit Art.” Jonaitis will overview the history of Tlingit artworks from the 18th to the 21st century, devoting special attention to elements that have been consistent over these centuries.
The first lecture in the series, on Nov. 13, was led by Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum, who spoke on the “Origins and Diversity of Northern Northwest Coast Headgear.”
All lectures in the series are held from 12-1 pm in the 4th floor boardroom at Sealaska Plaza. They are free and open to the public.