Seattle family gives “one-of-a-kind” Chilkat robe to SHI
Robe woven circa late 1800s-early 1900s, SHI to hold ceremony in late August
In a move that has stunned staff at Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a family from Seattle has given a valuable, ancient Chilkat robe to SHI in an effort to return it to its ancestral home and repatriate it to tribal people.
The donors, who wish to remain anonymous, chose SHI in part because it has a robust arts program through which it teaches Northwest Coast arts in an effort to perpetuate ancient practices.
A donation of this magnitude is unprecedented at SHI, and the donors’ generosity has elated staff, said SHI President Rosita Worl, noting that current and future generations of weavers will now get to study this robe made by their ancestors.
“These donors easily could have sold the robe for thousands of dollars to a private collector, and it would have been lost to us. Instead, the family elected to return it to the tribes,” said Worl. “We believe the Chilkat robe is imbued with spiritual dimensions, and because of this noble family, we are welcoming an ancestor home.”
The process of donating the blanket started when a daughter in the donating family noticed a similar blanket in her AP art history textbook. It was featured there as an important cultural piece as well as significant in the history of art. She then vigorously (and successfully) lobbied her parents to return it to its appropriate owners, the family wrote.
SHI will celebrate the robe’s return in a public ceremony scheduled Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Walter Soboleff Building in Juneau. Everyone is invited to attend.
The donors purchased the robe in the 1990s, and at the time, an opinion on the piece was offered by Bill Holm, a nationally-recognized expert on Northwest Coast art and formline design. Holm in 1995 estimated it was made around the turn of the century or perhaps in the early 1900s and noted it was very similar to two robes featured in the book The Chilkat Robe by George T. Emmons. Emmons thought the robes in the book depicted an osprey or thunderbird standing with outspread wings, but the noted anthropologist John Swanton believed they depicted a beaver with alder—its food, Holm wrote. Holm said he tended to favor the interpretation of a bird, rather than a beaver, but that “either interpretation can be defended.” A Northwest Coast art expert who studied a photo of the robe on SHI’s behalf thought it might depict a Raven because the beak is not curved.
Holm noted the robe donated to SHI differs only in detail from the robes in Emmons’s book but that some of those details are unique to the robe.
“For example, I know of no other robe with two long, squared tertiary solid Us, one blue and the other yellow, together like this,” wrote Holm. “There are some unusual and some unique features to the design, and to my recollection, it is one of a kind.”
Holm also noted that the robe was in good condition and showed little fading.
Chilkat weaving is a very complex art form that is unique to Northwest Coast cultures, and in recent years, it was considered to be an endangered art practice. A few Native artists mastered the craft and are now teaching it to others, giving hope this ancient practice will survive. Weavers note that it’s essential to have access to the old robes to study the techniques and materials used by their ancestors. The robe will be stored in Sealaska Heritage’s climate-controlled vault and made available to weavers for study. SHI also will house Holm’s paper on the piece in its archives.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research and advocacy that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.
CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, Media and Publications Director, 907.586-9116