Gwen Sauser and Lani Hotch work in Hotch’s home. (Photo courtesy of Colin Arisman)

Dozens of people turned out Thursday at the Haines ANB/ANS Hall for a community potluck and ceremony introducing the Salmon Protectors Robe project. 

The project aims to raise awareness about the need to protect salmon and the Chilkat River. Over the next two years, Lani Hotch Saantaas’ and four apprentices will design and weave five Chilkat robes honoring the five species of Pacific salmon that return to the river. 

Saantaas’ said she and the four apprentices – Gwen Sauser, Cheri Martin, Katrina Hotch Ak.lá, and Carrie Durr – have already started planning out their robes, each with its own salmon species and season. 

“We met in a brainstorming session and talked about what is so beautiful and wonderful about this valley and how we are going to … convey that in our robes,”  Saantaas’ said. 

Ak.lá is weaving a king salmon in the spring, Sauser a sockeye in the early summer, Saantaas’ a late summer humpy, Martin a dog salmon in the fall and Durr a coho in the winter.   

“Each one of them came up with their own design and then I worked with them on their color palette,” Saantaas’ said.  

(left) Lani Hotch presents on the Salmon Protector Robe project at the ANB/ANS Hall. Jones Hotch is on the right. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

The project is funded by a two-year grant and Saantaas’ said everyone is supposed to finish the robes during that time. 

“They will really grow as weavers because of this,” she said. 

She said she’ll meet with each apprentice often and work through problems. 

“We have to talk about self-care too, can’t just sit all day weaving. You have to get up and move around,” she said. “We talk about things like that because it’s kind of a danger. Even myself, I get so absorbed by my project and I lose track of time… then my body starts talking to me, then I have to get up and move. It can be so compelling and so absorbing and, you know, you get in the space and it’s hard to pull yourself away from it.”

Saantaas’ said a lot of people brought food to the ceremony, which always brings a crowd. Her brother made a big pot of moose and deer meat stew, someone brought fresh-baked bread that went well with the stew. Saantaas’ also brought two pans of berry cobbler. 

Thursday’s program also included a short film by Haines filmmakers Elsa Sebastian and Colin Arisman, which will eventually become a full documentary about the creation of the robes. 

Saantaas’ daughter, Katrina Hotch Ak.lá,  told the crowd during Thursday’s ceremony why the project is important to her. 

“I’m interested because the whole valley is important to me, and how art reflects culture. If the river valley is important to you, you belong and you have a place. Even if you don’t know what to say yourself – but there is a message that resonates with you – you can help amplify it,” she said.

Chilkat Indian Village president Kimberley Strong described the project as highlighting Native resilience.

“No matter how many times we’re told ‘no’ or that we’re not industrialists, that’s okay. We are who we are. We have love of the land,” Strong said.

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect Katrina Hotch Ak.lá’s statement during the ceremony.