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Keeping a traditional art form alive
In the small space of the former carving shed, seven women came together last week to learn from one another, to inspire each other and to ensure a traditional First Nations art form remains a vibrant part of the culture.
The women – members of the Tsimshian, Haida, Nisga'a and Kwakwakawakw nations – are among the few in the world who practice Chilkat weaving, one of the most complex weaving techniques in the world but one that produces beautiful blankets, robes, aprons and leggings adorned with faces and symbols of the culture. These finished pieces would be worn by Chiefs and people of high status within the nation during potlatches – only a few Nations have the right to wear these blankets and fewer individuals have the right to weave them.
The women, along with teacher Willy White, are among only 30 or 40 Chilkat weavers in the world.
"The word for this in our language is gwishalyaht, which translates to spirit wrapped around you. When you put that robe around you, you're being wrapped in the spirit. It is all about the supernatural world we live beside," explained Willy White, who taught the women and said there are very strict protocols involved in the weaving.
"Chilkat weaving is a gift. Not everyone is given to doing this ... it's just not for everyone to learn."
Aside from the amount of time, patience and expertise needed to create a Chilkat-weaved piece, the art form laid dormant for many years because of the restriction placed on First Nations culture.
"The importance of Chilkat weaving is that it gets danced. They get used in ceremonies, potlatches and they get danced. I was very fortunate from a young age to see them danced and see my grandmother weave ... when she passed away I saw them danced but nobody was weaving them," explained Donna Cranmer, a Kwakwakawakw weaver who has been weaving for 20 years
"There was a time when the government outlawed our culture, and that is when a lot of people gave it up ... there were people who were strong enough not to give it up though, they kept doing it and kept it alive."
White, who was taught to weave from a young age, has been doing everything is his power to keep the art form alive. Through his work, Chilkat weaving once again has a strong future on the North Coast.
"I teach because I want to pass on what I have learned for future generations," he said.
"The goal is that I teach one woman in each village and she takes her niece or granddaughter aside and teaches them to weave ... all of these women are going to be teachers."
The gathering, entitled Chilkat Weavers Circle 2013: Strengthening the Warp, is a rare chance for those who create this artwork to come together in the spirit of learning and fellowship. The last time such a gathering was held was in 2000, 13 years ago. Throughout the week, the women shared with each other different techniques and skills including working with mountain goat wool, dyeing the wool using traditional and natural items and joinery techniques for the work.
"This week has been a very strong, powerful medicine for us because it is so great to be with other artists and spend this time together ... we don't have the time usually, we have to struggle to make time and we all have second jobs to support our art," said Carol Young, a Nisga'a and Haida artist.
"It is a very lonely craft. Most of us work alone in our homes, so it is very nice to come together and inspire each other," said Sherri Dick, a Haida weaver from Haida Gwaii.
"To come out and weave with all these ladies who have so much knowledge, it's inspiring and I am humbled by it to be honest," said Pearl Innis, a Tsimshian weaver.
The gathering was made possible by a $20,000 grant from the Canada Council for the Arts following an application from Joanne Finlay.
"The significance of the art form for me is that it is something that is used and has been used in our culture forever," she said.
"The knowledge in this room is incredible. Truly incredible".
Of note, five of the few Chilkat weavers practicing today reside in Prince Rupert, making it one of the highest concentrations of weavers in the world.