A Seattle family has donated a valuable Chilkat robe to the Sealaska Heritage Institute in an effort to return it to its ancestral home and repatriate it to tribal people, SHI announced in a press release.
“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 Rosita Worl, Sealaska Heritage Institute president. “We believe the Chilkat robe is imbued with spiritual dimensions, and because of this noble family, we are welcoming an ancestor home.”
The donors, who wish to remain anonymous, chose to donate the robe to SHI in part because of the organization’s arts program that teaches Northwest Coast arts to perpetuate traditional practices.
A donation like this is unprecedented at Sealaska Heritage Institute, and Worl noted that current and future generations of weavers will be able to study the robe woven sometime in the late 1800s to early 1900s.
The donors purchased the robe in the 1990s, around the same time an opinion on the piece was offered by Bill Holm, a nationally-recognized expert on Northwest Coast art and formline design. In 1995, Holm estimated that the robe was made around the turn of the century or in the early 1900s, and noted its similarity to two robes featured in the book The Basketry of the Tlingit and the Chilkat Blanket by George T. Emmons.
Emmons thought the robes in the book showed an osprey or thunderbird standing with its wings spread, but noted anthropologist John Swanton believed they depicted a beaver with alder—its food, wrote Holm. Holm went on to say that he favored the interpretation of the bird, rather than a beaver, but that “either interpretation can be defended.”
A Northwest Coast art expert studied a photo of the Chilkat robe on Sealaska Heritage Institute’s behalf and thought it may depict a Raven because the beak is not curved.
Holm also noted that the robe donated to Sealaska Heritage Institute has unique details different from the robes shown in Emmons’s book.
“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.”
The press release from Sealaska Heritage Institute notes that Chilkat weaving is a complex art form unique to Northwest Coast cultures, and has, in recent years, been considered an endangered practice. A few Native American artists have mastered it and are now teaching it to others though, giving hope the tradition will survive. Weavers say that it is essential to have access to old robes to study the techniques and materials used by their ancestors. This robe will be stored in SHI’s climate-controlled vault and be available for weavers to study. SHI will also house Holm’s paper on the piece in its archives.
Sealaska Heritage Institute will hold a ceremony to celebrate the robe’s return on Saturday, August 26 at the Walter Soboleff Building in Juneau, Alaska. The ceremony will be open to the public.