It is a couple weeks shy of Father’s Day but TJ Young is not waiting for the holiday to share what a proud dad he is of his daughter.
Having begun weaving at the age of 11, the now 13 year old Kinsie Young will be showcasing two of her pieces — a headband and a ravenstail weaving medicine pouch — at the Juried Youth Art Exhibit hosted today through Saturday at this year’s Celebration. This will be the first time she has ever entered her work into a big art exhibit.
“I’m glad she got started at a young age,” TJ said. “I wish I would (have) gotten started at a younger age. I didn’t get my first set of carving tools from my mom until I was 17 and it was the best gift I ever had. I still have the same tools and am still using them.”
Kinsie begun weaving after she received an instructional kit as a gift from her parents featuring weaver Cheryl Samuel of Vancouver Island on DVD. The kit also came with a booklet and enough materials for Kinsie to weave three medicine bags. In the beginning, Kinsie and her mother sat down to study the materials together. Both parents have continued to offer a listening ear to Kinsie’s questions of what color or weave pattern she should choose for her next project, and TJ has even gone as far as reaching out to weaver Albert Hans from Skidegate and Haida Gwaii to receive different patterns Kinsie could follow. The most recent piece made by Kinsie’s hands rests on the head of her newborn sister: a tiny ravenstail headband.
“There’s no Haida ravenstail weavers where I’m from here in Alaska,” Kinisie said. “They’re mostly in Canada and it’s hard to connect with them so I just really want to learn so I can teach my kids in the future or other cousins that are Haida. I want to learn as much as I can about it before it’s too late.”
By too late, Kinsie means before the knowledge and practice of ravenstail weaving disappears. Kinsie’s generation luckily has been a part of the revitalization effort for Alaska Native culture and ways of life. However TJ can remember when his mother and grandfather could not practice their ways of life and definitely could not celebrate their identity out in the open.
“(Celebration lets us) celebrate who we are and who were were,” TJ said. “There were dark times in our history. We acknowledge it and bring it up every chance we can. We were fighting disease and then fighting residential schools and alcoholism after that. It was one blow after the other but we seem to persevere — we’re survivors and we’re still here, like Kinsie says ‘we’re still here.’ We get to be who we are now and who we were then and share it with everybody, too. It can be a real positive thing.”
For Kinsie, not even the 21st century phone-scroll temptations of social media can dissuade her hands from weaving. In fact, Kinsie uses online platforms like Instagram to promote her art form while encouraging her young peers to learn and possibly follow her in the artistic pursuit. A headband can take Kinsie anywhere from two weeks to a month, while medicine bags are produced at a quick rate of a week or two. Her friends find her skill very cool. “My friends understand how much I love being Haida,” Kinsie said.
The Juried Youth Art Exhibit began in 2016 and Sealaska Heritage Institute director of art Kari Groven said it gives young artists the opportunity to get their work out into the public eye.
“We wanted to both highlight the great work that is being done by youth and give an incentive for youth to stretch their skills because they know they are going to have their work out on display,” Groven said.
Attendees can see Kinsie’s headband and medicine bag, comprised of materials like mountain goat and sea otter fur, at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center (JACC). Both pieces have the lightning weave pattern, which is one of the first and most difficult patterns this young weaver has learned yet. Growing up around her carver father TJ, Kinsie has had art and culture a part of her daily life since childhood.
“(My dad) has been doing this my whole life,” Kinsie said. “I grew up with him always making a project. There’s always wood chips on the floor, there’s always something in the making. I wanted to be a part of it in my own way though — not exactly what he does, but my own thing, so now I have this really nice thing I can go do when I want to be a part of it.”
Now 37, TJ has been carving for two decades. Although his tools haven’t changed, his techniques have — a byproduct of the great amount of time and patience TJ has put into his work. TJ will have two pieces at Celebration’s Juried Art Show, a three-foot red cedar panel depicting the northern lights and a shaman’s mask. Both will be hosted at the Nathan Jackson Gallery in the Walter Soboleff Building.
“I remember being impressed by how we translated the Haida word for northern lights,” TJ said. “In English, it’s ‘the skin of the sky is burning.’”
The panel features two wolves and colors characteristic of the northern lights while the red cedar mask depicting a shaman has a mouth piece and is ready to be used in dance. The mask’s description, “It’s a Profound Moment in a Young Shaman’s Life,” highlights how the skills of a shaman, similar to being a carver, are passed down to an apprentice so that they may continue on.
TJ has been to a few Celebrations, and said that the four-day event is a time for his contemporaries to come together and enjoy the work each other is putting out into the world.
“Celebration brings people together for a good reason,” TJ said. “I’m always anxious to see the different cultures come together and celebrate who they are and their connection to the land. It’s real motivating for me to witness and experience that kind of camaraderie between different cultures. All of us know each other. We traded for thousands of years.”
TJ wants to attain and uphold the old golden standard quality of his art form in carving. It is a standard that was set in the late 1800s when Alaska Native art was at its pinnacle before introduced diseases decimated the Native population, he said.
“Artistically, my brother Joe and I talk about it — we’re kind of middlemen,” TJ said. “We’re basically studying these old pictures and this old art form that goes back thousands of years, and we’re trying to learn and get that standard just so that the future generations can carry it on. In a way right now, we’re middlemen and we’re fine with that. We accept our role.”
This past Friday, there was a soft opening for the youth exhibit and Groven said everyone was blown away by the caliber and quality of the art submissions. Some youth submissions, like Kinsie’s headband and medicine bag, are at a level typically seen in adult pieces.
“(Attendees) specifically said ‘it’s so encouraging to see that youth put this amount of time in to learn the artwork so well,’” Groven said.
TJ and his daughter Kinsie are only two out of the several Northwest Coast artists who will be participating in this year’s Celebration event. This will be the 36th year for a dance-and-culture festival known for bringing predominately Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people proudly together in acknowledgement that Alaska Native culture is still here and alive as ever.
“I’m glad she picked (weaving up),” TJ said. “Now she has a little sister too, and she is so excited about that. She is definitely going to have her own little apprentice in a couple of years. I know that she is just going to use that for motivation to want to get better and teach.”
To view Kinsie’s work, visit her Instagram account @gitkuyaa, which means ‘precious child’ in Haida. To view TJ’s work, visit his Instagram account @sgwaayaans, which is the moment before a wave curls in Haida.
• Ray Friedlander is a freelance writer living in Juneau.