“Weaving connects us to the past and teaching passes the weaving art on to the future.” —Delores Churchill

For Alaska Natives like the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, their deep-seated artistic traditions hold a sacred place in their cultural and social lives. But as the older generation passes on, they’re taking with them their wealth of knowledge and skills, and many precious art forms are in danger of being lost forever. That’s especially true for spruce-root basket weaving, one of the most at-risk Northwest Coast Native art traditions.

A spruce-root hat belonging to the Howkan Haida owl clan woven by Janice Criswell and painted by Steve Henrikson. Photo by Davina Cole, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage

At the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a regional nonprofit whose mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, they retain a database of artists to help provide indications of which art forms are thriving and which are not. Of their list of 155 artists, only eleven people create spruce-root basketry—that’s just seven percent compared to nearly 39 percent of their artists who create Northwest Coast wood carving. So, with support from their Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund grant, SHI has launched the Spruce-Root Weaving Mentor Apprenticeship Program. “The process of gathering, preparing and weaving spruce roots is one of the most complex and labor-intensive processes of basketry weaving in Southeast Alaska Native traditions, and we are worried we will lose the knowledge on how to make spruce-root pieces,” explains SHI President Rosita Worl. “This program seeks to turn things around by fostering new weavers who will also teach the practice to future generations.”

On August 22, 2018, guests aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird were treated to a presentation on spruce-root weaving by Haida master weaver Delores Churchill at the Walter Soboleff Building. Photo by Nobu Koch courtesy of Sealaska Heritage.

The mentor for this program is Delores Churchill, an incredibly active, energetic 90-year-old Haida artisan and one of the last living masters of spruce root collection, preparation, and basket weaving. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Delores’s work is exhibited in museums throughout the world and she was even the subject of an award-winning documentary film, Tracing Roots. Together with her two assistant instructors, she will train a cohort of nine apprentices not only in the art of spruce-root weaving, but also in instructional methods for how to teach spruce-root basket weaving to others. These apprentices will then teach one student each to immediately start passing on their new knowledge.

Two spruce-root baskets woven by master weaver Teri Rofkar. Photo courtesy of Sealaska Heritage.

Decorated with striking geometric designs in autumnal shades of yellow, orange, red and brown, Tlingit spruce-root baskets are considered some of the most aesthetically pleasing baskets made with the two-strand twining method. But the finished product doesn’t come easy. Preparing the material—the most important part of the process—is tedious work that involves harvesting, scraping, soaking, straightening, and splitting the roots so they are perfectly pliable.

Delores Churchill working on a replica of an old hat that was found in a melting glacier in British Columbia near human remains of a man who lived approximately 570 to 620 years ago. Photo by Kari Groven, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage.

Delores will lead approximately 22 sessions between August and November 2018 covering a range of topics from root gathering and preparation to weaving and teaching techniques. To further safeguard this age-old tradition, the LEX-NG Artisan Fund will support a video chronicler in Alaska to film Delores and help her catalogue and preserve a visual record of her skill sets. Just as her mother, world-famous weaver Selina Peratrovich, taught Delores the art form, she hopes to keep it alive for future generations by instructing others who can continue to pass the tradition on. “Each generation of weavers will contribute their interpretations and artistic expressions to the continuation and growth of this vibrant art form. My mother’s students and my students, and their students, will keep this art alive long after our names are forgotten. Weaving belongs to all of us.”

Watch our video to learn more about how the LEX-NG Artisan Fund positively affects the communities in which we explore.