By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, 2015 Artists in Business Leadership Fellow
A member of the Chilkat Indian Village Tribe in Klukwan, Alaska, Lani Hotch (Tlingit) weaves contemporary woolens in the Pacific Northwest tradition. She is a 2011 First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award honoree, a founding member and on the board of the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center nonprofit organization, and a member of the Ravenstail Weaver’s Guild.
The challenge is doing what she’s never done before — helping to revitalize an art form, a community, a people. To capture songs and stories in book form, establish a cultural center, lead a cultural renaissance, weave new patterns. All in her gentle way. Lani Hotch, 60, learned from elders, learned to encourage others how to show respect for traditional Tlingit ways.
Lani realized her people needed something tangible to heal from historical trauma when she took a seminar on the Holocaust in the early 1990s at the University of Alaska Southeast. Seeing the genocide of the Jewish people and how they healed set her on a journey after she returned to weaving in the 1990s. The inspiration of the Klukwan Healing Robe came to her at a time when her community was in transition, turmoil, and loss.
At a community gathering in 1992 to mark the beginning of the Healing Robe project, highly esteemed elder Joe Hotch, Lani's uncle-in-law, told the story of ancestors who went on long, cold journeys — trading expeditions — traveling over the icy lake Dezadeash. The elder likened the years of cultural oppression to a long, cold journey, but the weaving of the Healing Robe signified the ending of that journey. His words were prophetic.
Years later the robe, a healing prayer, and a new song let the community collectively throw off oppression and hurt. The end of their long, cold journey.
Haa Aan Kaa woo, Haa toot dax, kei aanwatee.
Haa toowoosigoo ka yei al’eix aan kaawooch haa, ee yaaw lidlaak
God took away the sadness, the heaviness we carried and presented unto us joy
and dancing as a permanent gift.
Many good things have come to their village since then.
In 2016 — through funding from the Surdna Foundation, assistance through First Peoples Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services — the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center opened its new exhibit for the community and visitors. When visitors walk into the Chilkat Cultural Landscape Map exhibit, they are grounded by the huge 15-foot by 30-foot map. Next comes paintings by Haines, Alaska artist Rob Goldberg of Chilkoot and Chilkat villages that no longer exist; a carved wood panel depicting Three Guardsman Peak by master carver Jim Heaton; a glass-and-wood sculpture depicting Dikeenak Yeigi, or the Ever Present Spirit, as he is found within the glacier; and a mannequin with traditional clothing made by Jennie Wheeler (FPF 2016 Community Spirit Honoree).
Then there is the new Berners Bay Robe, which was funded in part by Lani's FPF Cultural Capital Fellowship. Her weaving represents the southern boundary of Lani’s people and includes patterns for her ancestors, the mountains, glaciers, ice fields, waves, the high-tide line, and the Ever Present Spirit as he appears in the bottom of the ocean. Like the exhibit itself, the weaving challenged her to do things she’d never done before: weaving a round bottom and creating a new pattern.
Creating new patterns — healing patterns — is ongoing with Lani’s art and life.