By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Kandi McGilton (Metlakatla Indian Community) is a modern Tsimshian artist in southeast Alaska. A student of renowned master weavers Delores and Holly Churchill, Kandi practices the endangered Annette Island style of Tsimshian basketry. She received the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award in 2017 to help continue her apprenticeship.
Kandi specializes in devilfish bags (octopus bags) through her business, Devilfish Designs. She collaborates with 2017 First Peoples Fund fellow David R. Boxley (Tsimshian) to create traditional formline designs. She co-founded the Haayk Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to revitalize Sm’algyax, the language of the Tsimshian.
Dedicated and determined, Kandi still struggled with learning how to weave. She had teachers and worked hard, but couldn’t get it down. When Kandi heard Holly Churchill (Haida) was on her island, house sitting in the small fishing community of Metlakatla, she tracked down the traditional weaver.
“I kind of threw myself at her, saying ‘I want to learn how to weave from you,’” Kandi says with a laugh.
Kandi visited with Holly in the evenings, and experienced a transformation.
Holly recognized her technique problem immediately and asked if Kandi would like to learn Tsimshian style. Shocked that was even possible, Kandi said yes.
Holly introduced Kandi to her mother, Delores Churchill (Haida), a former Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards honoree and 2015 Cultural Capital fellow. Delores had Kandi reverse her weaving to clockwise and with a Z-twist. It all fell into place at last.
“The Tsimshian of Annette Islands Reserve has a unique style of weaving,” Kandi explains. “It uses all red cedar twining with the incorporation of maiden’s hair fern and canary grass false embroidery.”
Kandi is now taking the gift of her knowledge into replicating ancient baskets held in museums. Selecting pieces from hundreds of photos taken at the Museum of Anthropology, the Royal BC Museum, and the Burke Museum, Kandi is sitting down and weaving the replicas. Supported by her 2018 First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital fellowship, her goal is copying one piece from each museum. In this way, she is bringing the ancient pieces home.
“I’m extremely grateful for First Peoples Fund believing in this project, and understanding how important it is for me to create these replicas for our people to study and be proud of,” Kandi says.
With moving into leadership roles in the community, Kandi still presents her baskets to Delores. She takes a float plane or ferry to leave her island and visit her mentor in Ketchikan for Delores to critique her work.
“Delores is amazing with small intricacies,” Kandi says. “She was a saint from the start.”