Anna Brown Ehlers.

This year’s Rasmuson Distinguished Artist award winner Anna Brown Ehlers is technically from Juneau, but the Tlingit weaver says the roots of her Chilkat weaving are in Klukwan, where she learned her trade and where she still owns a house.

“I always feel like I’m home right there,” said Ehlers in a phone interview from Juneau.

Ehlers’ parents were from the village on the Chilkat River, her mother from the Gaanaxteidí clan of the famed Whalehouse, and she would visit regularly as a kid for summer fishing or weddings, funerals and 40-day celebrations. She bought a house in Klukwan in 2015, but hasn’t had a chance to visit because of the pandemic, and her hectic life schedule, which she said she has planned for 20-hour work days at least through 2025. She said friends in the area still send fish to her in Juneau, or even mountain goat pelts from their hunting trips, which Ehlers stores in her freezer until she spins the fur into yarn that goes into robes and tapestries.

Ehlers also traces her mastery of the intricate craft of Chilkat weaving to her teacher, Jenny Thlunaut, herself a distinguished artist from Klukwan who was recognized internationally before her death in 1986 at the age of 95.

Ehlers said she already knew some of the basics of Chilkat weaving from her own family, but becoming an expert was difficult as residents of the Chilkat Valley were transitioning to wage work and less focused on traditional art forms. The craft involves everything from collecting cedar bark for the fibers, spinning the wool and weaving it on a loom to make complex formline designs. A single piece can take thousands of hours of work.

After learning the basics, Ehlers tried to ingratiate herself to Thlunaut, a close family friend of Ehlers’ parents. The two lived in downtown Juneau, and Ehlers said she would visit Thlunaut to bring deer or moose meat and help clean the house. One day, 26-year-old Ehlers brought a tunic she was working on weaving. Thlunaut was impressed.

“She said ‘you’re just like me!’ she was so happy.” Ehlers recounted. Ehlers had four $100 bills in her pocket she handed over to Thlunaut in appreciation for the guidance.

The two traveled to Washington, D.C. together for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1984, when Thlunaut was 93. After Governor Steve Cowper asked Ehlers if she wanted to go, Ehlers said she only would if Thlunaut could come along.

“She said ‘If I’m alive I will.’ She held up her pinky finger and said ‘I have this much life left in me but I want to do this with you,'” Ehlers said.

The two remained close, with Thlunaut as a tough taskmaster, pinching Ehlers’ arm when she made a mistake.

“It didn’t bother me – my father was way tougher than her. He was in the military and ran our houses like a barracks,” she said.

Ehlers also said her time with Thlunaut helped her with her Tlingit language, which she learned only partially from her parents. She would often visit Thlunaut and other elders who spoke only Tlingit at a weaving circle they hosted. Ehlers, the youngest of the group, brought a cassette tape recorder and brought them home, where her dad translated them for her. She remembered one time where she heard her name interspersed in the Tlingit conversation several times.

“The next day I asked what they were talking about. She (Thlunaut) said, ‘That Anna Ehlers – she weaves Chilkat circles around us!'” Ehlers said.

Residents of Klukwan continue the tradition of Chilkat weaving, according to Lani Hotch, who hosts a regular group that attracts about a half dozen weavers.

Chilkat blankets can take thousands of hours to weave. Mary Brown Ehlers is known for her massive creations that can be upwards of eight feet.

Ehlers hasn’t been back to Klukwan for years, but said she hopes to make the retreat to her home there. She said she regularly takes trips to other cities where she’ll rent a hotel and weave nonstop to avoid distractions of her adopted hometown of Juneau. She said she hoped to do the same in Klukwan someday, or just catch and smoke salmon in the Chilkat River.

Ehlers’ award this year comes with a $50,000 prize. The 68-year-old has won her share of artistic awards over the years including this year’s Rasmuson, but said the most important thing is carrying on the tradition of Chilkat weaving.

“I’m lucky to be from such a rich culture,” she said. “As long as I’m carrying on what’s important to me, I’m happy.”