Image courtesy of artist

Image courtesy of artist

jennie wheeler


TRIBE: Tlingit

MEDIUM: Sealskin Sewing, Spruceroot Basketry

LOCATION: Yakutat, Alaska




For 30 years, Jennie has been weaving and sewing with materials traditional to Tlingit culture — seal skin, sea otter, deer and moose hide, furs, beads, spruce roots and grass — to help bind and strengthen her shrinking community of 600 people. Most of the objects Jennie creates are traditional regalia for ceremonial potlatches and dance. She also uses her art as a generational bridge, teaching young people and mixing traditional methods with contemporary projects like cell phone cases and purses.

Jennie believes all the processes that are part of sewing traditional regalia contribute to the passing on of traditions and life-ways. “In order to sew seal skin moccasins, I need someone from our village to hunt the seal. Then it is skinned, processed and finally ready to be sewn,” she says. “Hunting seal and other animals alone is a big part of our way of life. Respect and thankfulness is part of the hunting process, and I believe it is just as vital that we pass on our way of thinking as well as our way of life.”

Jennie has passed on her knowledge of fur and skin sewing and spruce root basketry to her daughter, Mary Goddard, of Sitka, who nominated her mother for the 2016 Community Spirit Award. “’Whenever you are making something, think good thoughts, for it goes into your work.’ She would remind me of this time and time again,” Mary says.

In the Tlingit culture, Jennie says, there is no separation of art from living. “They are one and the same. You cannot live our culture without being an ‘artist’ of some sort. We are a group of storytellers, sitting by the fire sewing, or out in our boats hunting seal and sea otter. This is our way of life. By simply sewing regalia or weaving baskets, I am helping to strengthen my community.”


These Canoes Carry Culture