Chilkat and Ravenstail weavings are two of the most complex art forms in North America—and also two of the most underappreciated. The opening of Interwoven Radiance, a new exhibit at the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art, aims to change that, by finally shedding some much-needed light and attention on this beautiful and spiritual weaving tradition, carried on by women weavers.
While not as well-known as other traditional Northwest Coast art forms—most of which are traditionally made by men—Chilkat and Ravenstail weavings are certainly no less deserving of the spotlight. A tradition which originated with the Tsimshian tribe, Chilkat weaving is now practiced by traditional Tlingit weavers in the Chilkat Valley of Alaska. The distinctive pieces combine imagery from nature with familiar graphic formline art motifs common throughout Northwest Coast traditional art. More minimalistic, Ravenstail weavings are black-and-white graphic pieces inspired by geometric basketry designs from the region.
The robes on display document history, honor clan relationships, and unite the community—but there are only a handful of Native artisan weavers trained in these techniques. The time-consuming process requires months of prep work. Even before the initial weaving of the textiles begins, cedar bark and mountain goat hair are collected and processed to form fibers, which are then twined together by hand—it takes more than six weeks to create the 1,000 yards of warp needed to weave just one ceremonial robe. Using an upright loom, the actual weaving of the robes takes more than a year to finish.
Lily Hope, who organized the exhibit with the museum, is a Tlingit artist and weaver based in Juneau, Alaska. She works to carry on the traditions of her ancestors, weaving with skills passed down through her matrilineal side. Robes from Hope and other prominent fiber artists from the community are on display at the Center for Contemporary Native Art. Hope’s exquisite Heritage Robe, (2017), in the traditional palette of black, white, turquoise, and yellow, is displayed alongside her mother (and teacher) Clarissa Rizal’s work—showing a traceable lineage of the female Chilkat weaver-teachers.
The work’s connection with nature is particularly felt in a majestic Ravenstail-style robe made up of seven mountain goat hides by scientist, historian, and weaver Teri Rofkar of Sitka, Alaska. “There is a spirit in that wool which I can’t describe in any other way,” Hope explains. “It’s amazing how much the animal is still present as we put the robe over our shoulders.”
Interwoven Radiance examines the dedication of these women weavers and presents Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving as a dynamic Native art form with a strong contemporary presence—spreading awareness, and hopefully helping to perpetuate a resurgence of this remarkable tradition.