Two months ago, I received an email from a weaver who wanted my mailing address so she could pay me for copying my “Jennie Weaves An Apprentice — Chilkat Weavers’ Handbook.” Then she emailed me a couple of photographs of the above apron that was gifted to her and her 4 weaving buddies by John Beard. Of course, in the weaving world, everyone knows the infamous Ravenstail weaver John Beard, so I was intrigued by the story of this apron and John’s connection! Even though I do not normally teach non-Native women Chilkat weaving unless they are part of the Native community (i.e. married to a Native man OR adopted into a Clan), because they had already started to learn how to Chilkat weave, I felt right telling them that if they wanted my help, I would be willing to assist in teaching them things they would not learn from any other teacher nor any other book on the subject, and also since I would be up in their neck of the woods in December when I do my public presentation on Chilkat weaving at the Portland Art Museum. I put my line out there and they bit!
The following is a follow-up report from the five “Apron Apprentices” to their sponsor, the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon:
“December 15-19, 2014, the Apron Apprentices spent five fun and informative days with Clarissa Rizal, a powerful Tlingit woman. These days were made possible in part due to the generous grant from the Native American Art Council to pay for Clarissa’s teaching fees and Sally Ishikawa’s kindness in providing space in her home for us to meet. Words alone cannot express our gratitude for these generous gifts.
The Apron Apprentices were first given the opportunity by John Beard to finish a Chilkat Apron started by Dodie Gannett in the 1980s. After two or three sessions of reading the weaving and slowly beginning to put in the first few twining stitches of our own, we began wishing for a teacher. Each of us in our own way began talking to our “left hand corner” looking for guidance in our journey with the apron. Our requests were answered when Clarissa offered to teach us the finger that Jennie Thlunaut taught her and share her weaving journey. She encouraged us to study and understand the spiritual journey of Chilkat weaving. With this special Apron, we have the opportunity to bring an important ceremonial object full circle back to life.
One mystery associated with our Apron is that when it was brought to John Beard, it was accompanied by an older, also unfinished apron, of the same pattern. Some of the weavers at Damascus Fiber Arts School had vague memories of this apron, but no one could remember where it came from. We showed it to Clarissa, and as she held it in her hands she said, “Doris Kyber-Gruber.” Doris was a weaver who learned Chilkat weaving before she even went to Alaska, and was associated with Chief Lelooska in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s she went to the Haines area in Alaska, and she knew Jennie Thlunaut. (Clarissa notes: “I remember Agnes Bellinger telling me about Doris who learned Chilkat weaving from her mother Jennie. She said that Doris had written a manuscript on Chilkat weaving, but she decided to never publish it because she realized the sacredness the Tlingit held of this style of weaving. About 15 years ago, a friend gave me color slides of Doris sitting next to Jennie learning how to weave with a couple of Native women in the late 1960’s I have to find these slides!)
Doris later moved to Portland, and John Beard has been able to confirm with Dodie Gannett’s family that Dodie and Doris knew each other and that they actually went to Kasaan Village in SE Alaska together in 1971 to teach a Chilkat Weaving Class. l We did a little bit of research on Doris, and learned that she passed away just last summer. This is a link to her obituary: http://obits.oregonlive.com/obituaries/oregon/obituary.aspx?pid+171863740
Our group is in awe over these amazing connections through these aprons. During our week with Clarissa, besides the cultural and spiritual aspects of the weaving, we learned a lot of technical information. Clarissa understood and explained notations Dodie had made on her “pattern board” that will enable us to move accurately finish the Apron as Dodie intended. Also of interest is information on the pattern we are weaving.
The Field Museum in Chicago, in possession of a very old apron after which our Apron is patterned, has notes that the pattern is “Hoorts, the Bear.” Internet research of old legends says Hoorts is the grizzly bear. Clarissa noted, however, that there are flukes on our patter, which would make it the “sea grizzly,” associated with a clan on North Vancouver Island (area). As part of our weaving journey with this Apron, we will continue to research information on the history and legends associated with the pattern. Our week with Clarissa brought us closer together as a group and has given us knowledge needed to move forward with this project. We will not take this privilege lightly.” — The Apron Apprentices (Sally Ishikawa, Joni Zimmerman, Stephany Anderson, Margaret Woods and Margaret Emborg Jeppessen)
I feel the “Apron Apprentices” need to partake in a ceremony where they experience the apron(s) being danced amongst our people. I would like them to experience Haines, the culture and it’s people in full context to Chilkat weaving. I encourage the Portland Art Museum that they assist all five of these women (and maybe John Beard too!) to attend a two-week weaving class in Haines and then attend Celebration 2016 in Juneau, Alaska.— The story of these aprons is not yet complete; they may be an on-going tale like any human life…!