Chilkat weaver receives national folk art honor

This undated photo shows Anna Brown Ehlers, right, and her daughter wearing Chilkat blankets she’d woven. (Photo courtesy of Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie/National Endowment for the Arts)

A 62-year-old Juneau woman has received one of the nation’s top awards recognizing traditional folk art.

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Chilkat weaver Anna Brown Ehlers is one of nine fellows named this week by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The NEA’s director of folk and traditional arts Clifford Murphy said this year’s National Heritage Fellowship artists are a diverse lot.

“If you look at this class of fellows you have Anna Brown Ehlers, who’s a Chilkat weaver; you have Phil Wiggins, who’s a blues harmonica player from the metro Washington, D.C., area; and then you have everything in between: craft, dance, music – it’s pretty extraordinary,” 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.

“One thing that is just stunningly beautiful about it is that to see something like this outside in the natural environment,” Murphy said. “It’s like the colors are utterly complementary to the landscape. These are the colors that you see in your trees and in your waterways and on the mountainside. It’s really quite striking.”

Anna Brown Ehlers was born and raised in Juneau. Her Tlingit ancestors come from the village of Klukwan.

“The designs on the Chilkat blanket represent our clans,” Ehlers said. “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.”

Ehlers said the art seemed to come easy for her when she started in the early 1980s.

“It was as if I’d always done it, it was kind of like deja vu,” Ehlers said. “I’m really happy to be included in this group and I’m really satisfied that us Chilkat Tlingit Indians are included.”

One of the challenges Ehlers said is gathering the traditional materials needed. Her children have helped her since they were old enough to use a knife, she said.

“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. “It’s not a fun job, that part I can tell you – but it’s a necessity!”

Ehlers spoke of one of her latest works: an 8-foot-by-7-foot blanket with the design of a newborn orca.

“When I finished that one, I did some research on the baby killer whales and when they’re born, they’re 7 feet long and they weigh 400 pounds,” Ehlers said. “That weaving, the killer whale was exactly 7-feet wide. So it’s a life-size killer whale.”

Ehlers and the other eight National Heritage Fellows will receive $25,000 and be honored at a September awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.