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Lani Hotch's robes part of Native textile exhibit at Alaska State museum


June 3, 2021

Courtesy of the Alaska State Museum.

A collection of Native robes on display at the Alaska State Museum. Klukwan's Healing Robe is pictured at the far right.

Master weaver and Klukwan resident Lani Hotch helped curate a new exhibit at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau that traces the history of Northwest Coast textile arts. The exhibit, "The Spirit Wraps Around You: Northern Northwest Coast Native Textiles," features historical and contemporary Chilkat and Ravenstail robes.

Only 12 of the historical Ravenstail robes are known to be in existence and they reside in European and East Coast museums. Two were temporarily loaned to the Alaska State Museum for display. Altogether, 24 robes are included in the exhibit, which runs through October 9.

Hotch made a presentation during the exhibit's May 8 opening, wrote display cards and helped conduct research for the exhibit.

Hotch has helped revive the nearly lost art of Ravenstail weaving. Only a few weavers practiced the art in the 1900s when Tlingits were punished for practicing their culture. Hotch began learning to weave in the Chilkat style, a style that has curves and formline shapes, as opposed to the more geometric Ravenstail designs, from her grandmother in 1976. When the last of the Klukwan elders who kept the art alive died, Hotch made efforts to continue learning the craft.

"Klukwan had such a legacy of weaving," Hotch said. "I really wanted to keep that tradition alive in the village. I worked hard to learn it and share my knowledge with other people."

She began learning from Cheryl Samuel, the person responsible for learning how to replicate the Ravenstail design after years of study and research.

"Cheryl Samuel researched the old-style robes, went to the museums that had them and figured out, by reverse engineering, how to make them and started teaching classes through the University of Alaska," said Alaska State Museum curator Steve Henrikson. "It led to a resurgence in this earlier form in weaving. Lani Hotch was one of the premier students of Cheryl Samuel."

Ravenstail weaving died out in the mid-1800s and many Native groups began practicing the Chilkat style. It's unclear exactly why Ravenstail weaving died out, Henrikson said, but experts believe the Chilkat weaving style allowed weavers to design curves and add crest and clan images on the robes. The remaining Ravenstail robes were collected by early European and American fur traders that traveled to the region in the late 1700s.

Hotch said she's woven about 10 large robes. The yarn is made from mountain goat wool. It can take up to a year to weave the robes, not including the time it takes to design the patterns and dye the wool.

The name of the exhibit, "The Spirit Wraps Around You," comes from the idea that the weaver's energy goes into the robe when it's made. The robes are often worn during ceremonies like funerals, potlatches and other special occasions. The robes are thought to carry the spirit of the ancestors through time.

"As a weaver, we're taught when we sit down to weave to be in a good spirit when you do it," Hotch said. "You can't be angry or depressed or have hard feelings because when we weave, the energy that we have when we're weaving goes into that piece and stays with it."

Hotch said the idea exists across cultures and time.

"In our church here in Klukwan, sometimes we pray over a handkerchief and send it to someone who is sick," Hotch said. "That prayer stays with that cloth. It's not a new concept. It's a concept that's been around a long time. In other Native American cultures there's similar thinking."

More than 100 weavers are now weaving using the once-abandoned Ravenstail design, Henrikson said. Now it's the Chilkat style that is in danger of being lost.

"I would call it an endangered art form," Henrikson said of the Chilkat style. "The materials used to make Chilkat robes are endangered in and of themselves. The mountain goat wool is extremely hard to get and the processing of it takes hundreds of hours. The yellow cedar bark that's used, yellow cedar is in decline."

The exhibit features Hotch's "Klukwan Healing Robe," a robe made over a period of eight years by Hotch and other Klukwan weavers in both the Chilkat and Ravenstail design. Samuel assisted in the weaving of that robe.

Fragments of one Ravenstail robe will remain in Alaska permanently. It was discovered during an archaeological dig in Sitka in the 1990s. It was deposited in the site 1830 for an unknown reason.


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