Weaving Generations
December 18, 2020

Weaving Generations

Lani Hotch (Tlingit) wove a variation of the lightning pattern for her robe’s (blanket) top border.

She keenly felt how all people are compelled on a timeline, being pushed forward as times change. People die, others are born.

This is what the top border of her Generations Robe represents.

In 2016, Lani had started to feel her own mortality. Two elder weavers she knew in southeast Alaska had passed away. They were the same age as her.

“Here I’m thinking I have all this time, and you just never know,” Lani says. She is the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center’s Executive Director, a First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award honoree (2011), and a Cultural Capital fellow (2015, 2016).

“I felt like I had to do a number of things immediately,” she says. “First, I wanted to take on apprentices and teach them how to weave so that the weaving legacy wouldn’t die with me. I had done a few group projects, and some people did know how to weave, but not very many. Nobody other than myself had taken on a full-sized robe project on their own.”

The elders’ passing pushed Lani to work ever harder on preserving and perpetuating history and culture. Through a grant under the National Park Service, she took on an apprentice who began weaving a robe. She also began weaving the Generations Robe in January of 2018.

The sense of urgency she felt in getting this knowledge spread was confirmed in March 2018 when a ruptured appendix nearly took her life.

“My elders are passing, and my generation is becoming the elders,” Lani says. “I felt a keen sense of responsibility towards the younger generation to teach them all I can of what I know so that knowledge won’t be lost when I pass.”

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After recovering, Lani began work again on the Generations Robe. She thought through the side borders, another variation on the lightning pattern. There are no clean-cut transitions between generations. In her own family, Lani has nine older brothers, with the oldest being 20 years older than her. A decade separates her in age from his children.

“There’s overlap, and that side border speaks to how our generations intermesh,” she says. “It’s one long continuum, and it’s not clear where one ends, and another one starts.”

In 2019, the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center in Klukwan, a village with a population of less than 100, was awarded a First Peoples Fund Indigenous Arts Ecology Grant. The Center’s dance group typically welcomes thousands of visitors annually who come for their cultural education tours. The youth and elders who participate in the tours wear regalia, but Lani could see the fraying edges, worn moccasins, unfinished tunics, and commercial knock-offs being used because of the lack of authentic regalia. She applied for the funding, in part, to restore their regalia.

“[With the grant] we made a dozen pair of moccasins,” Lani says. “Others worked on upgrading the regalia. That was one of the focuses of the first year of our IAE grant.”

As a result when the Frog Clan House at.oow (clan treasures), including four totemic house posts and a replica of the Raven wall screen, returned to Klukwan in 2019, the youth and elders welcomed them home to the Heritage Center in ceremony, dressed in the restored regalia.

While they were restoring and adding to the dance group’s regalia, Lani wove the Generation’s Robe. The row below the top border features the labret pattern. It honors the legacy of the women who were weavers in the village, and all the women who brought forth generations.

Following the labret is a butterfly pattern — the transition that takes place between generations.

In the center of the robe are hourglass figures.

“The idea behind the Generations Robe was triggered by the death of those two weavers,” Lani says. “At some point, the time runs out on our lives, and the next generation must carry things forward.”

On each side of the hourglasses are tree patterns representing the different generations. In Lani’s family tree, she is the fourth generation of weavers.

The bottom border recalls the lightning of the top border to show how the younger generations will look back to their elders and ancestors for wisdom and guidance.

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Lani finished the Generations Robe and added it to the Heritage Dancers’ regalia. She had noticed the robe her brother Jack used was saggy and worn. For 20 years, he has taught boys of the group how to dance in the men’s style. Jack was the male role model they needed, always sparking interest in the boys to do the traditional dancing. Lani wanted to honor him by gifting the robe to the group for him to wear. He will use the Generations Robe as long as he keeps dancing.

“Our dancers are like cultural ambassadors,” Lani says. “They perform for the visitors who come to Klukwan as part of tour groups or off cruise ships. People that come out want to learn about our culture. Our dancers perform new dances and tell history with those performances. They can truly represent the richness of our cultural heritage.”

In 2020, the Heritage Center’s IAE program moved into creating a craft store in the old hospitality house on the grounds. That concept came from an FPF convening that included a session on artists’ needs to access material.

“That’s what gave me the idea that we needed to have a craft shop in Klukwan where people could buy the materials and make things whenever they want,” Lani says. “We’re looking to open between now and the new year.”

Restored regalia. New robe. Generations gone before, generations ahead. Lani and her people are continuing in the flow of time.

She says, “People are always dying, people are being born, and the generations change.”

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