By Jacob Resneck
An Alaska Native weaver of Chilkat blankets has received one of the nation’s top awards recognizing traditional folk art. The National Endowment for the Arts’ director of folk and traditional arts, Clifford Murphy, says his organization is honoring 62-year-old Anna Brown Ehlers for her outstanding weaving.
“National Heritage Fellowships are the highest national honor in folk and traditional arts. So this is really a lifetime recognition for mastery of traditional arts,” Murphy said.
Chilkat weaving is an indigenous art-form practiced by coastal people in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Traditionally, mountain goat wool is woven on a loom and blended with thin strips of cedar bark to create elaborately patterned blankets.
Born and raised in Juneau, Ehlers’ Tlingit ancestors come from the village Klukwan.
“The designs on the Chilkat blanket represent our clans,” Ehlers said. “So the designs say who you are and by knowing that I’m from the Whale House–people know where you’re from. And it’s not an ownership of the land, it’s our identity.”
She says her children have helped her since they were old enough to use a knife.
“We prepare the materials in the springtime and whenever mountain goat hunters call me and ask me to meet them at the ferry terminal or they send me a hide on a plane, my children and friends and relatives of mine, all show up and work the mountain goat together,” Ehlers said. “And it’s not a fun job, that part I can tell you – but it’s a necessity.”
Ehlers and the other eight National Heritage Fellows which include a Hawaiian slack key guitarist and an African-American blues harmonica player will each receive $25,000 and be feted at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. this fall.