donates Chilkat robe to Sealaska Heritage Institute
Seattle family has donated this "one of a kind" Chilkat robe
to the Sealaska Heritage Institute, which will hold a ceremony
celebrating it on August 26. (photo courtesy Sealaska Heritage
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
"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
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
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
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 alderits 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.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980
to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through
public services and events. Sealaska Heritage Institute also conducts
social scientific and public policy research and advocacy that promotes
Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The
institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council
of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast
Regional Language Committee. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance
Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.