Hoonah Artists

Linking to their past, providing for the future; 15 students learn Tlingit weaving and carving

Posted: Thursday, January 04, 2007

Fifteen Hoonah residents have been busy honing skills that not only connect them to their past, but also help ensure their financial futures.

They have been learning Tlingit weaving and carving as part of a three-year art program under the auspices of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, the nonprofit arm of the Juneau-based regional Native corporation, Sealaska.

The program was funded with $363,500 in federal grant money administered by the administration for Native Americans. It paid not only for materials, but also for expert artists to visit Hoonah several times per year to teach workshops.

Most students who took part in the program also will earn a Northwest Coast art certificate from the University of Alaska, a project partner, enabling them to teach weaving and carving to others.

"I used to weave when I was just a small girl and lost the craft as everything started happening in my life," said one student, Harlena Warford.

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"When we started the weaving class, it was the most astounding experience in my life - to know something so ancient and to watch it come back to life."

Warford's niece, Darlene See, also took the course.

"It is important to help carry it on. It's a way of life that has always been with our people," she said.

See's grandmother had been a weaver, but See never had the opportunity to learn the skill from her.

The program serves another purpose - to provide income for the villagers.

Hoonah, a town of roughly 900 people, has experienced a surge in cruise ship traffic since renovation of the local cannery, now called Icy Strait Point. The tourist attraction is owned by Huna Totem Corp., the area's Native village corporation.

Icy Strait Point opened in May 2004, around the same time the art program was started.

With the development of the cannery, tourism in Hoonah has become more lucrative, putting the artists in an excellent position to sell their work.

In 2005, tours to Hoonah totaled $3.3 million to $4.3 million, with 35,000 tourist visits. That number was expected to double in 2006, according to a report released by the University of Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research last fall.

See and Warford run a store, Gut' Shu Wu, in the restored cannery where they sell Native medicines and some weaving.

Melvin Williams, a carving student, said he hopes to get good enough at carving small display canoes to sell at Icy Strait Point as well.

He got involved in the course to follow in his father's footsteps, renowned carver David Williams Sr.

"So I guess, (I'm) trying to pick up where he left off," he said. "I'll never be as good as he was."

Not all pieces are going to be sold, however. Warford has been weaving Native regalia, which she plans to keep for personal use and to pass on to future generations.

Another student, Marjorie Peterson said it was too hard to part with some of the pieces she has finished.

That's not surprising, especially considering the amount of time it takes to weave just one basket.

Peterson, who owns the Whale Watch Lodge, said her most recent basket project took 106 hours - and that didn't include the preparation time.

During the program, students not only learned carving and weaving skills, but where to gather materials and how to prepare them. Most materials are found in the Hoonah area, Peterson said, but one key basket material - red cedar - must be collected or purchased from other parts of Southeast Alaska.

Many of the students had either limited or no experience with weaving or carving prior to taking the classes.

"We had each other here to inspire each other or help each other. Several of us still get together and weave," See said.

Those involved

Weavers: Lisa Andersson, Christine Greenwald, Sonja Koenig, Marjorie Peterson, Darlene See, Harlena Warford, Daphne Wright and Carol Williams.

Carvers: Jeffrey Skaflestad, Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley, Sam Sheakley, Duain White, Jerry White and Melvin Williams.

Money from the grant paid for renowned Ketchikan weaver, Delores Churchill, to host 10-day to two-week workshops twice a year for three years. Among the visiting instructors was acclaimed carver Steve Brown.

One of the most important elements of the class was that all students were expected to ultimately be able to teach their newly-acquired skills to others.

Peterson had never taught before, but she and the others instructed new students during the final class. It made her realize just how much she had learned.

"It is surprising how much you know that you think you don't know," she said.

The grant also will help fund two books on carving and weaving for use by future artists and school students. The institute's partners in the arts program included the Huna Heritage Foundation, the Hoonah School District and University of Alaska Southeast. It was also supported by Huna Totem Corp. and Hoonah Indian Association.

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