Tlingit weaver wins NEA fellowship

Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2009

ANCHORAGE - A Sitka artist renowned for her Tlingit weaving and basketry is among the 11 Americans honored with a National Heritage Fellowship, which comes with a $25,000 prize.

The award for Teri Rofkar was announced last week by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The NEA National Heritage Fellowships are considered America's highest award for traditional folk arts and crafts. Recipients are sometimes referred to as "living cultural treasures."

"I'm still kind of numb from the fact it happened," Rofkar said. "The money couldn't have come at a better time. It's tough to be a traditional artist in this financial climate. It allows me to continue doing what I'm doing. It means I don't have to start cleaning houses for a living."

The Anchorage Daily News contacted Rofkar by phone in Philadelphia, where she's working on a book with the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The museum has a collection of more than 480 Tlingit baskets.

"These guys don't even know I'm a weaver," she said with a laugh.

Rofkar works in various woven art forms but is particularly known for her robes, also called blankets, made in the "raven's tail" style unique to southeast Alaska.

One of her most viewed pieces, "The Robe of Gathered Tradition," is in the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. Other works are on display at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks and the Denver Art Museum.

She joins other Native Alaskans who have received the NEA fellowship, including Nathan Jackson, Delores Churchill and Nick and Elena Charles.

"They all became great ambassadors for Alaska," Rofkar said.

Rofkar has been a lecturer at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She was a visiting scholar at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in 2003.

She was among the first recipients of the $50,000 United States Artists Rasmuson Fellowships in 2006.

On Friday, Rofkar received one of the eight $12,000 individual artist grants announced by Alaska's Rasmuson Foundation.

Rofkar, whose Tlingit name is Chas' Koowu Tla'a, is of the Raven Clan, from the Snail House. She credits her grandmother, Eliza Mork, for exposing her to Tlingit weaving.

"The enthusiasm and love of doing it I definitely got from her," she said.

Rofkar now lives in Sitka with her husband, Denny, and three children, Erin, Paul and Graig. Among her pending projects are a robe using buffalo wool for the 100th anniversary of Sitka National Historical Park, taking place in 2010.

"Who knew buffalo wool would cost $27 an ounce!" she said.

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