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When Anna Brown Ehlers apprenticed to one of the last traditional Chilkat weavers, her teacher was 92 years old.
"The tenuous thread with the past was endangered," Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer wrote in a letter nominating Ehlers for the First People's Fund Community Spirit Award. "In this ever-changing, fast-paced world, Anna has dedicated herself to sharing the knowledge of this complex art form."
Ehlers recently won the Community Spirit Award in recognition of the hundreds of students she has taught how to twist and weave cedar and wool into traditional blankets. She and four other Native artists will be honored Nov. 2 at the Denver Art Museum.
Ehlers knew she wanted to become a weaver after watching her uncle march in Juneau's Fourth of July parade wearing a Chilkat blanket as a young child.
"It just mesmerized me from the first time I saw it," Ehlers said. "It's just all I ever wanted to do, but my dad had told me I had to wait until I could be invited to learn."
Finding a teacher was difficult. In the 1970s the art was slowly dying with the older weavers.
"Everybody had so many children and nobody did it because everybody just had to work," Ehlers said. "Art is a luxury, whether you're learning it or buying it."
The invitation finally came in 1983, when 92-year-old Jennie Thlunaut, one of the last really traditional weavers, offered to teach Ehlers. A state grant made it possible to accept the invitation.
"She taught me a lot of the trade secrets," Ehlers said.
Rosita Worl, executive director of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, remembers seeing Ehlers at Thlunaut's when she would visit the elder weaver, who was her grandmother.
"I really admire the commitment she made to Chilkat blanket weaving," Worl said. "She really had to make an effort to go out and learn."
Few others have made that commitment, though Sealaska Heritage Foundation has had Ehlers teach at the summer Tlingit and Haida Kusteeyi (Culture) Institute. Worl knows of only seven other Chilkat weavers.
"We don't have a lot of people who are running out to learn this," Worl said. "I know how Anna struggles not to have to get a regular job. She really does struggle financially to do this and we're richer for that."
Ehlers has demonstrated and taught for 16 years in a variety of venues, from the Smithsonian Museum to cruise ships. In Southeast she's taught at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan and in her home.
"I've taught hundreds of people weaving, but it's turned out to be mostly Chilkat weaving appreciation. Once they realize how hard it is, they don't even want to spin the wool themselves."
Just preparing the wool and cedar strips for a Chilkat blanket takes three months, Ehlers said. Then the weaving takes another nine months.
"First of all you have to prepare your cedar bark, you have to spin your wool, then you have to dry it," she said. "It's hard on your hands. It's hard on your eyes. It's hard on your shoulders. It's hard on your back. People are surprised with how demanding it is."
Constant exposure to the raw wool caused her body to rebel, making her allergic to fur. Now she takes allergy medicine whenever working with the unspun wool. She doesn't let that stop her.
"To me it's just one of the basic elements of my life," Ehlers said. "I'm not happy unless I'm doing something about Chilkat weaving every day."
Ehlers has woven nine full-sized blankets, as well as numerous aprons, bibs, bags and vests. She's also the only weaver of traditional Chilkat seamless tunics, she said, a design she learned from Thlunaut. Her weavings hang all over the world, in museums and private collections, but she prefers to keep her work near home, where it is worn and used in dances.
"That's the best, if all my work could stay in Alaska with the people that use it," Ehlers said. "It's so rewarding to sit back after I've done something and someone's wearing it and I can't believe I did it myself."