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Alaska Natives Use Virtual Imagery to Preserve and Pass on Culture
It was not a pretty robe when it arrived at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage last spring. The tassels were frayed and twisted, the colors faded.
The Tlingit ceremonial garment called a Naaxein or Chilkat robe was born from the hands of a Tlingit weaver around the year 1900. The weaving is exquisitely complex and beautiful, and very few examples of this technique remain. But its exile from Tlingit culture in the intervening century wrought heavily on its appearance. Now, the robe is almost too fragile to pick up.
“Every time it’s flipped and moved, little pieces of it come off, because it’s in a pliable, fragile state,” explains museum curator Angie Demma.
Worst of all, the robe hasn’t been worn, danced in, or loved by Alaska Native people in more than 120 years. Nor has it been able to pass on its knowledge of traditional weaving techniques. At least not until this past spring.
The History of Chilkat Robes
Chilkat robes are signs of wealth and status. It takes at least a year for a weaver to weave one. The twine, made of mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark, is hand-spun on the weaver’s thigh, a few yards per day. Some estimates say it takes 500 hours to spin the twine and 2,500 hours to weave the robe.
The robes are traditionally worn at important tribal gatherings, such as the koo.eex, commonly called the potlatch. Only certain people with permission can wear the robes and only under very specific circumstances.
The wearer usually dances with the robe draped down the back and over the shoulders in front. Dancing and spinning in circles causes the fringe to rise, like wings soaring. This visual, in combination with powerful drumming and singing, leave a deep impression on those who witness it.
The robes are much more than decoration, however. Their origins have roots in tales of the trickster Raven and the sea spirit Gonaqadet. The garments are so powerful, in one tale told by Tlingit elder and anthropologist Louis Shotridge (and written down for the Penn Museum in 1914), a Chilkat robe caused a war between the Tsimshian and Haida tribes.
Shotridge tells of a Tsimshian Chief who shows a beautiful robe to a Tlingit trader. The trader becomes entranced by it and offers an exorbitant sum for the robe. The Chief accepts the price on the condition the trader also includes a special royal delicacy called tínx, made from a special sweet berry found only in the north, a supply of which the trader has with him. The trader hesitates, because the tínx he has with him is meant for a rival Chief of the Haida tribe in the south. But the trader is so entranced by the robe, he finally agrees and gives the payment and the Haida Chief’s tínx to the Tsimshian Chief.
When the Haida Chief hears his tínx has been usurped by the Tsimshian Chief, he takes it as an insult, and a bloody war between the two tribes, which had been brewing for some time, erupts.
The Tlingit trader takes the robe he bought to his home in the Chilkat region, but because of its connection to the war, he refuses to show it to anyone. He even attempts to destroy it. But his daughter goes into seclusion for more than a year to study the robe and learn the secrets of its beauty. She then uses these techniques to weave a new, even more resplendent robe.
Years later, the Tlingit trader’s clan ends a war with a rival clan, and as a symbol of the covenant of absolute peace between them, he reveals the new, radiant robe his daughter has woven.
“There was shone forth, like the rays of the rising sun, a like creation which the people had never viewed,” Shotridge writes.
The new robe is called Rain Storm because it clears all foul matter out of the way to prepare for the coming of peace. Robes are still presented at the koo.eex of many families and clans. They are worn at memorials, totem pole raisings, and many other occasions, such as Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Celebration, held every two years in Juneau. Thus, the connection between Chilkat robes and Tlingit ceremonies continues.
The Bond Between Robes and Humans
“[Chilkat robes] were considered to be part of the family,” says Tlingit weaver Shelly S’eiskaa Laws. “Once you weave a robe, and once it comes off the loom, it kind of takes on a life of its own. … It accumulates its own experiences and stories.”
“Important robes are brought to potlatches even if they aren’t worn,” Laws says. “They’re considered relatives or guests.”
According to Lily Hope, a Tlingit Chilkat weaver, teacher, and lecturer, only about 12 people currently exist who have woven a Chilkat ceremonial dancing robe. She says this is mainly due to the tremendous amount of time it takes to complete one.
Chilkat weavers spend months repeating the same movements, over and over, for hours at a time. This concentration required can be compared to meditation, and weavers often speak fondly of the bond they form with the robes they weave.
“Each robe has its own personality. Each one has a different vibe,” Hope said while giving a weaving demonstration at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.
Hope, a Raven of the T’akDein Taan clan, comes from a family of weavers. Her mother, the late Clarissa Rizal, was instrumental in helping revive the tradition after becoming a student of Jennie Thlunaut, an elder in the tradition and a famous prolific Chilkat weaver.
“Our mother used to talk about how a certain robe made her happy when she wove it, and how another one made her cry,” she says. “Weaving a robe is almost like raising a child as you let the robe’s natural qualities come out, and you simply encourage that development.”
Hope’s sister and fellow Tlingit weaver, Ursala Hudson, says she only began weaving a few years ago after her mother coaxed her into weaving a 5-inch square block for a larger robe. Hudson discovered she loved weaving and began seriously studying it.
Hudson’s mother “walked into the forest,” as Tlingits say, in 2016, and Hudson used weaving to feel closer to her. She wove an entire Chilkat robe during the pandemic. As she wove, she became aware of how her fingers moved the same way her mother’s had, the same way her people’s had for hundreds of years.
“You realize when you’re in that moment that you are part of this really long thread,” Hudson says. “You’re just continuing the work of your ancestors. … Your work is a manifestation of your ancestors.”
Scanning the Robe
The “teaching” robe at the Alaska Native Heritage Center was originally given to a mining executive in Juneau around 1900. When the mining industry there declined, he and his family moved to California and took the robe with them. It was in storage for decades until several years ago, when the robe was given to an old family friend and doctor working in Alaska, Brian Trimble, who finally helped the robe make its way back into Alaska Native hands.
Trimble donated the robe to the Heritage Center, refusing to accept anything for it, though it’s probably worth tens of thousands of dollars.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center cleaned the robe and, on May 2, honored its return with song and dance. Tribal members from the dance group Aachich Kwaan danced for the robe in regalia. Alaska Native students surrounded the robe and gazed at it respectfully.
Tlingit weaver Shelly S’eiskaa Laws spoke about the robe and explained its curious markings. The design was of a diving whale, she said, which was hard to see until Laws pointed out its various parts.
Most Chilkat robes use consistent weaving techniques, but this one used many different styles. The unknown Tlingit woman who wove it used the robe to demonstrate different weaving techniques to a student. Looking closely at it, one can almost hear the weaver saying to her student, “Here’s another way you can do it.”
It is impossible to tell what Tlingit clan and house the robe belongs to, Laws told the students. The design is relatively common, and the weaver’s mark could be misleading, as students often used their teacher’s signature mark as an indication of lineage.
Following the welcome ceremony, a technology company called Trimble, Inc. (no relation to the robe’s donor) brought LIDAR scanners to the center to digitize the robe. The resulting 3D image files they donated have such high definition that the robe can be zoomed in on and turned over and around, allowing examination in minute detail. So while the actual elder robe now lies comfortably in a protected case, new generations of Chilkat weavers can learn from it in digital form.
The robe scanning was just one part of a multiday event in which other things, such as Iñupiaq gloves, were scanned and digitized in partnership with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. Drones were also used to scan traditional Alaska Native houses on the museum grounds. Young Alaska Native high school students from various tribes in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program attended as part of a visiting professionals program sponsored by the scanning company, Trimble, Inc., which connects technology professionals with the classroom.
The Chilkat robe scanning was the highlight of the event.
The Rise of Virtual Reality in Indian Country
Other tribes and Native organizations also use laser scanning and digital imagery to enhance preservation of tribal artifacts and provide tools for invigorating the study of tribal culture. The Virtual Museum of Native American Basketry has more than 100 3D virtual images of Native American baskets anyone can “virtually” pick up, turn over, and otherwise examine online.
In California, several sacred caves of the Tejon Indian Tribe were laser scanned in 2017. Tribal members and others can now enter a virtual reality model of these caves and examine the rock art without damaging the actual sites, which are off-limits to visitors.
The video game Never Alone uses 3D scanned images of actual Iñupiaq objects. The player experiences an authentic Iñupiaq story by playing a young Iñupiaq girl on a quest to find the source of an eternal blizzard threatening her people.
The old Chilkat teaching robe is now back with its Tlingit and Alaska Native families. Revered as an elder, the robe has accumulated its own stories and experiences as it traveled. Like so many Alaska Native people, the robe was displaced from its ancestral home, but eventually returned, and was welcomed.
Now, in its old age, and thanks to digital technologies, the Chilkat robe teaches again.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 11:31a.m. PT on Oct. 17, 2022, to specify the name of the company who donated the scanning technology and output files for the Chilkat robe. Read our corrections policy here.
Frank Hopper , Tlingit, is a freelance Native journalist born in Juneau, Alaska, now living in Tacoma, Washington. His work appears in Last Real Indians, The Stranger, and Indian Country Today. His self-titled YouTube channel features videos about Native issues. He can be reached at [email protected] His YouTube link is https://youtube.com/c/FrankHopper1