The Roots of Weaving

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

Image by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Muskogee/Dine)

Image by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Muskogee/Dine)

This is it! Delores Churchill (Haida) claps her hands in joy at her latest discovery. Maidenhair fern grows along a small waterfall, where they sprut between the damp rocks. One side of the fern stem is black, the other brown.

But that isn’t all Delores came for. Leaving the crisp waves capping along the shores she has walked since childhood, collecting seagull eggs and fishing, Delores takes a group into the woods to dig for spruce roots. At 86-years-old, she teaches her students to carefully cover the remaining roots after gathering material to weave baskets, as her mother taught her.

Long ago, her mother looked at Delores’ daughter and said, “She won’t know who she is. Take her back to the village.”

Many young Natives have not hunted for maidenhair fern and, most important, roots. They do not know who they are. They are discouraged, defeated.

So Delores collects roots and weaves baskets while teaching young people how to do Haida weaving and about their own roots. She is publishing a book to document her knowledge of basketry.

Delores discovered another way to share this traditional art with the help of filmmaker Ellen Frankenstein. Ellen followed Delores on her journey of preserving a culture and heritage blown away by a cold wind each time a Haida elder passes on.

Through the film Tracing Roots, Delores’ story has traveled across the country with assistance from her First Peoples Fund award. The film sparks strong emotion and debates. The defeated attitudes of young people come from a lack of roots, of not going back to where they started. But clearly youth are inspired when Delores shows the film and Native students are reminded of what their culture and elders mean to their lives.

Delores travels beyond the place and time where she is and shares her adventurous heart with others. She keeps moving, back into the past or forward to future generations.

But Delores always digs up roots.

Delores Churchill is a 2002 Community Spirit Awards Honoree and a 2006 and 2015 Cultural Capital Fellow. Read more about her FPF journey here.