Anna Brown Ehlers (Tlingit) remembers the moment when she first dreamed of becoming a Chilkat weaver. She was four, Alaska had just become a state, and her uncle was dancing in his traditional Chilkat blanket during a community celebration.
“I saw that beautiful design and those rich colors. I watched the fringe gracefully moving back and forth as my uncle danced, and I knew I hoped I could do that someday,” she said.
Fifty-eight years later, Anna has been recognized as among the country’s foremost artists by the National Endowment for the Arts through a National Heritage Fellowship. The awards were announced in June. In 2001, First Peoples Fund honored Anna through a Community Spirit Award for her work to revitalize and pass on Chilkat weaving, an art form that was nearly lost in her lifetime.
“The traditional style of Chilkat weaving is one of the most complex techniques of traditional weavings and today has become highly valued because of the handful of women like Anna who continue the tradition of this rare artform, said Lori Pourier, FPF president and CEO. “Anna has been part of First Peoples Fund’s family for many years, and we are delighted that the NEA has recognized her exceptional artistry and invaluable contributions as an Alaska Native culture bearer.”
“Our blankets say who we are. The designs include our tribal crests and our relation to the land. When you wear it, it connotes your ancestry and people know who you are. It’s not about ownership, it’s about relationship,” Anna said.
Anna credits several people with helping to revive Chilkat weaving. Her primary teacher, Jennie Thlunaut, was considered one of the last living Chilkat weavers in the late 1960s. Anna traveled for many summers from her home in Juneau to Jenny’s in Klukwan to learn from her. Jennie received a National Heritage Fellowship in 1986.
“She was a pretty tough woman. She would only speak Tlingit to me, and her teaching methods included pinching my arm and kicking me under the table,” Anna said, laughing. “But she was wonderful. She worked hard and never took breaks. When I got invited to the Folklife Festival [in Washington, DC] years later, she was 90 already, but she came with me. She told me, ‘I know I only have this much life left in me, and I want to come with you.’”
Many other apprentices followed Anna to Jennie, including the acclaimed Tlingit weaver Clarissa Rizal, also a former First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital Fellow and NEA National Heritage Fellow, who passed away last year.
Anna believes it is her responsibility to continue to pass on the traditional knowledge she learned from Jennie and other teachers, and estimates that she has taught Chilkat weaving to more than 300 people.
Anna is a previous Artists in Business Leadership fellow and Cultural Capital fellow through First Peoples Fund. In 2006, she received the United States Artists award. “I used this money to honor my father,” she said. Working more than 5,000 hours, she created a 7 ½-feet-wide by 6-feet-long blanket in 17 sections for her father’s Potlach. During the ceremony, in accordance with her father’s last wishes, she cut the blanket into pieces and gave them away to his surviving friends.
Her decision to cut up the big, beautiful blanket was controversial, Anna said. “I’ve never cared too much about controversy,” she added.
Lori Pourier and other representatives from First Peoples Fund traveled to Anna’s community to celebrate with her, her family and her community in this historical moment. “You could hear a pin drop when Anna took the scissor and began cutting the weaving,” Lori said.
Anna wove another large-scale blanket featuring the profile of a killer whale carving design. She designed the blanket to be the length of a killer whale at birth — 7 feet. “I used enough materials for two full blankets, it’s the biggest in the world, and it took me 8,000 hours,” she said.
Going large is not Anna’s only innovation to traditional Chilkat style. After her daughter Maria told her about a dream she’d had featuring a Chilkat weaving that included carvings and gold thread, Anna spent years researching how to incorporate gold thread into her blankets. Now gold thread, along with small carvings by other Tlingit artists, are a hallmark of her style.
Anna said she has many years of projects in the planning and idea phases. Being awarded the National Heritage Fellowship “will give me time to do the work I want to do,” she said. “What a wonderful surprise. It’s been 16 years since I was first nominated for the NEA fellowship. I guess I just had to get to the golden age,” she added, laughing.
(Anna is one of two First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Honorees to receive the NEA National Heritage Fellowship this year. Slack key guitar master Cyril Lani Pahinui (Native Hawaiian) also received the award and was featured in last month’s eSPIRIT.)