Clarissa Rizal, Resilience Robe

Clarissa Rizal, Resilience Robe, 2014, merino wool, 64 x 53 inches (Portland Art Museum); speakers Lily Hope and Dr. Beth Harris

Terms to know:

  • Chilkat weaving
  • Tlingit
  • formline
  • Northwest Coast
  • resilience

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] I’m in the Portland Art Museum with Lily Hope, looking at a beautiful Chilkat robe woven by her mother.

Lily Hope: [0:15] This “Resilience Robe” is a modern take on an ancient design. Chilkat weaving originates from the Northwest Coast, so she has elements of traditional bird with wings and a tail, and the claws, and the feathers coming down on the points of these wings. Then within that body of the bird is modern influences.

Dr. Harris: [0:39] For example, I notice the letters A-N-B on the left and A-N-S on the right, so the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood.

Lily: [0:48] Key in bringing about sovereignty, if you can say that, bringing about power to the Indigenous peoples so that we had a unified voice.

Dr. Harris: [0:56] We also see the logo of Sealaska right in the center.

Lily: [1:01] This was the original Sealaska Corporation design. That corporation is one of the 13 corporations in Alaska who organized to support the Indigenous peoples of Southeast Alaska. The Tlingit people have been around for thousands of years, and here we have just the last 100, 200 years of these influences.

[1:20] We even have in the very tail of this design Sealaska Heritage Institute’s original logo. They support arts education and all sorts of support for Alaska Native artists and scholars.

Dr. Harris: [1:32] That education is so important because these are traditional ways of creating that must be passed down to new generations so that they’re not lost.

Lily: [1:41] Sealaska Heritage Institute is dedicated to perpetuating endangered art forms. Chilkat weaving is one of them.

Dr. Harris: [1:48] Your mother, Clarissa Rizal, learned this technique from someone who had practiced it for decades.

Lily: [1:54] Yes.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] You yourself are a weaver carrying on this tradition.

Lily: [1:58] Trained under my mother.

Dr. Harris: [1:59] She learned from Jennie Thlunaut, who is this very revered weaver.

Lily: [2:03] Jennie Thlunaut wove over 90 large weavings in her lifetime, which is phenomenal. When you think about weavers taking a year or a year and a half or four years to finish one robe, and Jennie wove 90.

Dr. Harris: [2:16] We’re not just talking about going down to the corner and buying some yarn.

Lily: [2:20] It’s three or four months of preparation.

Dr. Harris: [2:23] Gathering the bark, treating it, shredding it, spinning it together with the wool, traditionally goat’s hair. The spinning is done on the thigh. Really labor intensive. Requires an enormous amount of skill, and patience, I imagine.

Lily: [2:38] It is months of work before you even get to hang your warp on your loom. We call it a loom, but it’s more of a frame.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] Normally, we think about a loom as having the warp, the vertical threads, attached at the top and the bottom. Here, they’re only attached at the top, which means that the weaver has to have an enormous amount of skill to keep the tension even as you’re winding the weft through the warp.

Lily: [3:02] How you hold your hands makes all the difference in whether you have a wonky little weaving or if you have a nice firm fiber that’s danceable.

[3:10] This Chilkat weaving uses four colors: black, yellow, turquoise, and white. They would be commissioned by clan leaders or heads of the communities, and still are. You have to have a deep pocketbook for these robes. They’re some of the most prestigious pieces of art you can own from the Northwest Coast.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] Art historians refer to this kind of pattern as formline design, these ovoid and circular shapes. These black lines that get thin and thick. These are very similar to the designs that one would see in wood carving, but here adjusted for weaving. These are made by women, where traditionally, the carving would be done by men.

Lily: [3:50] Chilkat robes often hold the crests and clan emblems of the people of the Northwest Coast.

Dr. Harris: [3:57] I know that this robe features an eagle and a raven. Both important animals in Tlingit culture.

Lily: [4:04] This robe is an eagle and a raven. We say its moiety, which is a French anthropological term which means half. In Tlingit culture, you are an eagle or you are a raven. Traditionally, you would marry your opposite.

Dr. Harris: [4:18] There’s something very balanced about the robe.

Lily: [4:22] It’s perfect that way. She has embodied both the ANB and the ANS, the eagle and the raven. We have elements of not just strength in the Tlingit people, in the people of Southeast Alaska, but we also have the outside influence on these outer panels the gold panning that happened. The museums and schools that came in and helped us to fit in in the Western world.

Dr. Harris: [4:45] We also see ships.

Lily: [4:47] We have the influences of trade on the Northwest Coast; from the Russians, from the English coming over on their ships. They would bring us not just disease, right, but buttons and wool blankets.

[5:00] We get those influences which weren’t all bad. There are probably hundreds of people who know to Chilkat weave and most of us practice it as a hobby. There are probably less than 10 of us who have the time and expertise to weave a full-size robe.

Dr. Harris: [5:16] The time involved to make a robe of this size is not something that everyone can afford or know how to do.

Lily: [5:21] It’s a huge commitment. I just put my second robe on the loom, and the overwhelming feeling of that, of, “OK, this is what I’m doing for the next year and a half.” It’s terrifying. It’s also so gratifying.

Dr. Harris: [5:33] It looks like it’s heavy to wear.

Lily: [5:35] It’s seven or eight pounds of merino wool with cedar bark spun into it. It’s like a hug when you put it on. When it drapes over your shoulders, you want to move because that fringe dances around you at your knees and down to your calves. You just want to shake your shoulders back and forth and feel what that’s like to move and bring it alive.

[5:55] There is such a spiritual power in these robes that we don’t fully understand even now. We protect, not just the wearer, but we protect the teachings and how to pass this information on.

[6:07] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Lily Hope at Portland Art Museum, "Clarissa Rizal, Resilience Robe," in Smarthistory, March 18, 2021, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/clarissa-rizal-resilience-robe/.