Close-up of yoke of Tunic #1 - synthetic fringe, machine-embroidered trim, bias tape, felt body

I must have been almost 16 when I met him.  I think it was 1972.  He was part of a team of four Tlingit men who had come together under the organization of Gilbert Lucero.  At a time when the Native culture was just beginning to “sprout” back, Gilbert’s vision was to provide the young Native community of Juneau a holistic approach to help revive the Tlingit culture by way of evening classes for an entire month held at the Totem Center.  Cy Peck, Sr. came in from Angoon to teach the Native ways of conducting various ceremonies, clan ownership of the sacred objects and the Tlingit language; A.P. Johnson came from Sitka and introduced us to the conflicts of Native law vs. Western laws; and Harry Bremner, Sr. from Yakutat taught us the songs and dances of the Mt. St. Elias people.  (There was a fourth elder who was a part of the team and I can see his face so clearly but I cannot remember his name – he had a permanent smile on his face, not much taller than I, with a head of thick, white hair – he was the one who, upon seeing me for the first time, called out to Harry and exclaimed:  “Harry, come quickly, come!…Take a look at this nose!”) – Harry came up to me and looked at my face and checked out my nose.   (You can imagine how I was embarrassed!)  Harry then said:  “You!…I want you to be my song leader and drummer…!”).   That’s how I officially met Harry K. Bremner, Sr., 40 years ago.   Coming to know Harry during those next four years lead me down a path I have yet to stray.

Full view of Tunic #1 - sleevless with ties at the side

These are photographs of my very first Tlingit dance regalia.  They are styled after Yakutat’s Mt. St. Elias dancers’ regalia.  I had never sewn anything before.  I followed Harry’s instructions; he was the designer and knew exactly what he wanted.  One day Harry said we were going to the fabric store and making tunics…(for the five, young students who seemed most committed to the songs and dances.)  Those students included Deena (Aceveda) LaRue, Doug Patterson, Victoria (Canul) Dunne, Catrina (Camposano) Mitchell, and myself.  Harry was preparing us to perform with the Mt. St. Elias Dancers who were going to be touring Southeast Alaska (at a time when Native dance groups did not exist, much less touring dance groups, was unheard of).   None of us had any dance regalia; as far as I know, these were our very first regalia pieces.  We learned the songs of Yakutat and Mt. St. Elias.  Over the years, whenever I see the dancers perform and hear the songs, I feel a sentiment and a peace; I am immediately brought back to a time when these things were new, we were innocent to what lay ahead, and all of what I learned then is still a part of me now, as Harry helped bring me back home to myself.

My first five hand-sewn tunics - yes, indeed there are 6 and I don't remember making that one, but I've included it with the rest of these tunics; it has my clan emblem on it, the T'akDeinTaan, sewn to the front. I didn't know how to do the formline art back then so I KNOW I didn't make that tunic!

A few years ago, during the 2007 Clan Conference, I was talking with Elaine Abraham (Ramos), who is a niece to Harry.  She was telling me that Harry was talented at many things – being a tailor was one of those talents.  He had learned while he was living in Seattle working at a tailor shop.  My very first sewing lesson was a question Harry asked me:  “How long do you make the thread for your needle when you are hand-sewing?”  I shrugged my shoulders.  He replied:  “The proper length of your thread is the distance from the object being sewn and your arm outstretched…”  He added “…if you have it any longer than that, it will be too long and your thread will always tangle…”  I have sewn hundreds of garments, costumes and regalia since then, and I kid you not, every time I have threaded up a needle and measure the length, I have ALWAYS thought of Harry.  40 years, and most likely still going!

Brilliant blue felt tunic trimmed with white felt and a matching pair of cotton work gloves trimmed with yarn pompoms at the finger tips and outer sides of palm - with synthetic gold fringe - Harry used these kind of gloves when he danced; I don't think any of us had ever seen this type of dance regalia accessory before - nowadays, most of us are familiar to these pompommed gloves

Days before I graduated from high school, my mother asked me what I would like as a graduation gift.  I replied:  a sewing machine.  She looked perplexed “Huh?  You don’t sew…I’ve had a sewing machine for years and you’ve never used it…”  I replied “Well, if I had my own, I would sew…”  Graduation Day was on my 18th birthday.   My Mamma loves me; I received a brand new Genie Singer sewing machine – I love that machine.  I used to travel with my machine all the time!  The machine is compact, light-weight and is able to fit under the seat on a jet!  Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve sewn hundreds of items.  I taught myself how to read patterns and make clothing.  I made clothing for my children, family members and friends.  I brought it to a Chilkat weaving workshop in Haines in 1985 and after class I sewed two dresses for my Chilkat weaving teacher, Jennie Thlunaut.  (In fact, she is wearing a dress I made for her in some of the last photographs of her taken by photographer, Larry McNeil.)  Although I have a sophisticated Bernina, and I have a classic 1935 Singer sewing machine in a cabinet, I still use my Genie on occasion.  I’ve even bought this same model for each of my daughters.  When my mother saw the results of her gift, and witnessed my involvement with the Native songs and dance, she sewed me a button robe with a beaded emblem of our clan crest, the T’akDeinTaan.  Funny thing, I had no idea my mother could sew button robes!

Tunic #3 - trimmed with bias tape, cult felt fringe and single strands of beads and sequins at the bodice

Harry was from the Kwaashki’kwaan from the Owl House in Yakutat.  He said the T’akDeinTaan branched from Yakutat area by way of a tributary called T’akDein of the Alsek River.  He said because we were  related, I could call him “Grandpa.”  He was a gentleman and had a sophisticated dignity about his appearance.  I am not saying vanity in a negative way; I speak of it with respect in reference to this man.  He was in his early 80’s and was gently proud of his physique – he made me note his  42″ barrel chest slimming down to a 32″ waist with no potbelly whatsoever.   He had a brisk, direct walk.  His mind was alert.  And there has not been a Native dancer of his age like him; whoa, could this man dance!  When I visited him in Yakutat in 1975, I discovered he was still building a house, building a boat and still went fishing!  (At the time, me being only just 16, I was unawares of how remarkable he was – but now looking back upon it, I realize this amazing elder was in great shape.)  Harry was a hunter, fisherman and he played the mandolin.  (Now that I think about it, this guy was my kind of man!)

Tunic #4 - this was the tunic I wore - red felt body with blue synthetic fringe, bias tape and single strands of beads and sequins

I had no idea until a few years ago my mother had kept these tunics in her closet all these years!  She asked me if I wanted them; of course!  I am thankful to my Mamma that she kept these; she knew the value in them.  In the meantime, she watched me designing and making button robes after button robes.  She probably knew that although I had “neglected” these tunics, as I was young and going out into the wide blue world, I may want them some day.  Of course!   They are like little treasures of historical documents with the young sweat of our DNA and they were an introduction to a way of life I had not even imagined.  Because Harry and I worked on these tunics, they are part Harry and part me.  Can you tell I have deep admiration, respect and love for this man?  And I am thankful that my Mamma saved these tunics; I think my Mamma is proud of me.   I am fortunate to have these pieces as they are the living proof of where I began as a maker of regalia; it is living proof of how specific people in one’s life can make all the difference of what we be and do.

Full view of Tunic #4 - this was one of two tunics I had sewn that had sleeves - it was the first time I had sewn sleeves on anything - I do not have a photo of the other tunic; it belongs to Catrina (Camposano) Mitchell

Harry told me many stories; his voice would change when he was telling me something of great importance, something he wanted me to take heed.  As he was telling the following parable, I could “see” the entire imagery; and, maybe that is why I have remembered this “lesson” well…and maybe I’ve remembered this lesson because I applied it to my life…

“Say you are across the sea on another continent and you will be taking a long return voyage home.  The voyage might take a week, it might take a month, but whatever the length of time, you take care of yourself so you can make the long journey.  You will not be drinking the pop or the alcohol – you will not eat bad food; if you do, you know what happens, you will get seasick and puke over the side.  Depending upon how much you abuse or neglect your self, you may not make the long journey back home…stay away from these things so you may make that long journey and return to your self and know who you are…”

Harry K. Bremner, Sr. and I - Yakutat airport - April 1975