Anna Brown Ehlers’ artistic mastery in Chilkat weaving has earned her a place as one of the nine recipients of a 2017 National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship. This is the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
“It’s amazing to me that our tribal art would be chosen,” Ehlers said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Juneau has always been Ehlers home, although her parents’ ancestral home is Klukwan; Ehlers is Tlingit from the Yéil (Raven) moiety, Gaanaxteidí clan of the Whalehouse.
Her grandmothers Mary Betts and Marie Peters taught her how to do beadwork and skin sewing. Ehlers’ paternal grandmother’s best friend, Jennie Thlunaut, received the NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1986 for Chilkat weaving and had once apprenticed Ehlers.
“When I was a child on the first Fourth of July parade after Alaska became a state, I was four years old, and I remember my uncle was wearing a Chilkat blanket in the parade and I saw how beautiful it was and was like, I want to make that,” Ehlers said.
Before Ehlers could begin weaving full-time, she worked for the State of Alaska as a senate administrative assistant. Senator John Sackett from Ruby, Alaska, told Ehlers that there was something else she needed to do in her life for fulfillment besides working in the Senate.
“He asked me, ‘What do you really want to do for your life?’ and I said ‘I want to make Chilkat blankets,’” Ehlers said.
From the urging and support of Senators Frank Ferguson from Kotzebue, Nels Anderson from Dillingham, and Sackett, Ehlers wrote up a proposal for her goal to weave full-time, an environmental impact statement, and a budget proposal in 1983. Her proposal was put into a bill that year and was passed the spring of the following year.
“And that got me started,” Ehlers said.
Ehlers has now been committed to Chilkat weaving for over 30 years and specializes in weaving Chilkat blankets. Only natural materials are used to create these blankets. Mountain goat fur is a necessary element and is donated to Ehlers by hunters, the Department of Fish and Game, and other Alaskans who know about her work. With hunters, Ehlers said she it is lucky to get an entire hide due to the weight of the fur. Fish and Game will often collect the fur during the springtime when the goats rub against trees or rocks while shedding, she said. Once, a local saw a goat carcass on a mountain being eaten by eagles; after the eagles were done and only the hide remained, he brought it down for Ehlers to use for her weaving.
It takes six to seven mountain goat hides to make one Chilkat blanket. Only the soft, downy fur can be used while all the long guard hairs are discarded. It’s a long process of pulling apart the fur and fluffing it up by hand, then spinning it with yellow cedar bark to create the wool.
“During the springtime, two weeks after the herring are done spawning is the best time to get the yellow cedar bark,” Ehlers said.
She says that weavers look for the same things in a tree that the totem pole carvers look for: no knots or cracks. She then makes one U-shaped cut on the tree on its south side and then pulls with both hands; once she feels the tension she lets off. Ehlers said she gets up to 20 feet of cedar bark with this method.
“The inner bark is what we roll up in bundles and bring home,” Ehlers said. “You only take one piece of bark off of each tree you cut from.”
Yellow cedar trees are not indigenous to Juneau and so they must be harvested in Sitka, Kake or Ketchikan where a permit must first be acquired.
“We have to be respectful of what other people’s resources are,” Ehlers said.
Although they aren’t grown naturally here, she mentions the one yellow cedar tree at the Governor’s Mansion and how she stops to admire it every time she goes by.
The cedar bark is cured in water then once it’s soft it can be turned into paper-thin sheets. After that, it’s stripped down like linguini and split until there is a table full of strands that then must be air-dried. A tiny hand full of spun goat fur with two strips of cedar bark initiates the spinning. If more than one person is helping, one blanket takes two months to complete.
“When you get it on the loom it’s like, ‘Yes, we did it!” Ehlers said.
Twenty-four carat gold wire has become Ehlers’ hallmark and she incorporates it into some of her pieces. The idea for this union of gold and weaving came from a dream. Marie, Ehlers’ oldest child, woke up after dreaming of a Chilkat face that had gold-filled holes in it similar to how the Inca and the Mayan structured their golden masks. After using all of her savings from one year, Ehlers purchased enough gold wire to begin bringing her daughter’s dream to life.
“It took me many, many years to figure out how to do it because how expensive it is and I didn’t want to make any mistakes,” she said
Ehlers started teaching in 1985. She’s taught Chilkat weaving workshops in Fairbanks, at the University of Alaska Southeast, and in Ketchikan. She has also brought in and instructed people as apprentices in her own home. She has taught over 300 people.
Her completed woven pieces are now mostly located in private collections and museums.
“My greatest achievement myself though, I think, is a sculptural killer whale hat that was in seven pieces and took me two weeks to put it together after I wove it,” Ehlers said. “Also a big killer whale blanket and a potlatch blanket I wove for my dad.”
The killer whale blanket she wove is regarded as the longest Chilkat blanket in history and lays seven feet high and eight feet wide. The killer whale image on the blanket alone is seven feet from head to tail and is the actual size of a newborn killer whale.
Ehlers has since received over $100,000 in grants from all over the U.S;, most of them are from her past achievements. She has been honored with many awards, including a 2001 First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award, a 2006 inaugural year United States Artist Award, a 2006 Alaska Governor’s Award for the Native Arts, a 2008 Best of Show at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Juried Art Show and Competition, and a 2009 Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award. Her commitment to her craft and her culture has been justly recognized.
“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to honor these individuals for artistic mastery, as well as a commitment to sharing their traditions,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu in a press release. “Our nation is a richer, more vibrant place because of these artists and the art forms they practice.”
The 2017 National Heritage Fellowship will be celebrated at two free events in Washington, D.C. The NEA National Heritage Fellowships Awards Ceremony will take place at the Library of Congress on Thursday, Sept. 14 at 5:30 p.m. and the NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert will take place on Friday, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. There will also be a live webcast. For more information, go to arts.gov.
• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer in Juneau.