Artist weaves Native values into baskets

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2008

Della Cheney said she sees Southeast Alaska Native cultures coming back into focus in many ways, but for the weaver, the emergence of art is a primary way to teach and remind her people about traditional tribal values.

David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

Cheney, whose Tlingit name is Kaats saa waa, teaches Native culture at Floyd Dryden Middle School in Juneau, where she shares with her students a list of values describing "Our Way of Life," written during the 2004 Elders Forum on Traditional Values.

Respect for nature, patience, and pride in family and clan are just a few of the items on the list she refers to when talking about art. Without an understanding of the values, she can't make her cedar-bark hats or baskets, she said, "because it's coming from inside out."

For example, when she decides to go into the woods to collect bark, she "makes my way" in her mind that it will be a positive day. She thanks the tree where she strips the material and opens her mind to notice what's around her, such as bear cub claw marks on the trunk of the tree.

She would take some of the bark, and later include it in one of her pieces as a symbol of the power of youth.

"As you're working along, life is happening around you, and you think about what is it trying to tell in your basket," she said.

A similar process occurred as she designed and wove the raven's tail robe titled "Women of Justice" that won Best of Show in the contemporary category for Sealaska Heritage Institute's juried art show.

Winners were announced Wednesday during the exhibit opening at the Juneau Arts & Cultural Center. The show is part of Celebration 2008, a Native cultural festival that officially kicks off today.

Cheney's robe is made of merino wool with sea otter skin and beaver fur details. She made it while her mother was ill and her daughter became conflicted about staying in law school or coming home to be with her grandmother. The three women visited frequently over eight months to discuss the design, colors and elements of the robe, which Cheney said she made as a symbol of strength for her daughter.

Cheney, 60, who is originally from Kake, learned to weave in a class at the University of Alaska Southeast in 1993. Her brother, Norman L. Jackson from Kake, a well-known carver who died May 18, taught her to appreciate art.

"He could carve for hours on end and not get tired," she said. "His hands were like bear paws, and I would think, how could he weave, you know?"

Jackson's work also is displayed in the downtown gallery. The exhibit will be open until June 27 and is included in the city's First Friday gallery walk this week.

Twenty-seven artists submitted 55 objects for the competition, from jewelry to baskets to blankets. They were judged through photographs by author and curator Steve Brown this spring.

Cheney was surprised but "excited" that her work was chosen in the contemporary category. She said she considers the robe traditional since it represents her family.

"The art is coming back to us," she said. "Repatriation is still alive, but to replicate or design new ones so that the art is still with us makes us feel the happiness in ourselves again."

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or e-mail

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