To Help People Grieve

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

Jennie Wheeler (Tlingit) gathers a family at the local church in her Native fishing village of Yakutat, Alaska, and teaches them to create their dance dresses, boots, and moccasins for the upcoming memorial potlatch. They talk and support one another. Sewing is therapeutic in these times when a love one has passed. That is why Jennie teaches the family to make the regalia long used by the Tlingit people. Memorial potlatches are still a vital part of her community and create an environment for healing.

She helps people grieve.

For over 30 years, art has been Jennie’s way of life. Among the Tlingit, one can’t separate art from living. They harvest the natural material God gave them and teach the younger generation to do the same. Part of daily living includes hunting, fishing, picking berries and gathering plants for medicines and teas. When the young people live the art — their way of life — there’s no place for the troubles that plague so many youth because of alcohol and drug abuse. Jennie was taught that you have to have good thoughts when you work. 

Mary Goddard, a full-time Alaskan Native artist, witnessed first hand Jennie’s generosity and passion for her culture and community. Mary was privileged to receive her mother’s diligent teachings growing up, and still watches Jennie reach out to help others. The First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award Mary nominated her mother for gave Jennie acknowledgement and help to continue teaching others.

Most of Jennie’s work with deer and moose hides, seal skin, sea otter, furs, beads, spruce roots and grass involve making traditional pieces, especially for ceremonial and memorial potlatches. But Jennie also makes purses and cell phone cases. Mixing traditional and contemporary helps bridge the gap between the elders and youth of her community.

Youth are not the only ones with the desire and need to learn the art and way of life. Harvesting, sewing and weaving were discouraged during the boarding school years, so Tlingit elders today want to learn these traditional ways. Elders experienced resistance in the past from the clergy, but the church Jennie attends encourages the Native way of life. That is one reason she holds classes in the church. The sewing, the weaving, the place — all tools for healing. The elders are accepted and celebrated for who they are.

Preparations are complete for the next memorial potlatch. The family continues the healing process.

As Jennie’s parents taught her, “Do the best you can, then pass it on.”

Jennie Wheeler is a 2016 Community Spirit Award Honoree. Join us in celebrating Jennie and the other honorees on October 8, 2016.