Teri Rofkar, whose Tlingit name is Chas' Koowu Tla'a, was born into the Raven Clan. As a young child, she was exposed to traditional methods of weaving by her grandmother. While too busy and impatient at the time to sit down and weave, these experiences later inspired her to seek out elders in her community to learn these techniques. Today, she often refers to herself as a "basket case” because she weaves all the time, apart from when she is in the forest harvesting materials. She is known world-wide as a teacher and researcher and as a weaver of the once-lost art form of the Raven's Tail Robe. She says, "I am following the steps of ancestors, striving to recapture the woven arts of an indigenous people. The ancient ways of gathering spruce root, with respect for the tree's life and spirit, are a rich lesson in today's world. Traditional methods of gathering and weaving natural materials help me link past, present, and future. Links with a time when things were slower paced, a time when even a child’s berry basket was decorated with care. It is through sharing and exploring that this old art form shall take on new life." In 2003, she came to the National Museum of the American Indian to study and analyze cultural material used in basketry and robes. Ever willing to apply 21st century tools, she recently has been exploring Web technology to verify the age and authenticity of weavings.
Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA
Teri Rofkar: My name is Teri Rofkar. In Tlingit it's "Chas koowu tlaa." I am a Raven from the Snail House or "T'akdeintaan". I live in Sitka, Alaska.
NEA: So tell me about your weaving.
Teri Rofkar: In our culture, the Tlingit, you couldn't even step out of a canoe without speaking who you were. "Chas koowu tlaa" is my Tlingit name. I am a Raven from the Snail House and you would recognize whoever's land it is that you would be jumping off on, basically letting them know what your intent is. And so it also helps to define my place in the society as it used to be and interestingly enough, in a way that it has moved forward.
I do the weaving. I got introduced -- I'll have to say, exposed to it -- from my grandma when she babysat us. My grandma was born here in Sitka in the 1800s, so she babysat us when our mom and dad were out commercial fishing. We spent time in Pelican fishing village north of Sitka by about 75 miles, so her enthusiasm, just pure joy while she was weaving, was contagious.
NEA: When did you begin weaving again as an adult?
Teri Rofkar: Well, probably about 1986. I sat my husband down and said, "Honey, oh, my gosh. I know what I'm gonna be when I grow up. I'm a weaver." You know, grandma said we were weavers. I kind of joked, but not so much. It's the family business. We were weavers and whalers and she was trying to impart as much knowledge as she could while she was alive. By the time I hit the reality and recognized what I needed to do, my grandma had been gone for 10 years. So it was kind of like two week workshops from Delores Churchill and Ernestine Hanlon. Delores is a Haida woman but she's really gracious about sharing her knowledge that she has about the Tlingit weaving as well. There are just so few real active weavers. I don't think I have to take my shoes off to count them. Ernestine Hanlon's out of Hoonah so, it was really exciting to go harvest in areas where my grandmother used to harvest the spruce roots. Then in 1989 I had really already made a couple of years' commitment. I had some sales. It was exciting.
Cheryl Samuel came through and she was teaching a geometric weaving. It was an ancient weaving that predated the Chilkat robes. The Raven robes are the ones that people picture in their minds, those robes that have those beautiful circles and eyes and form lines, but this was the geometric. After taking the two-week class we got a little bag that was -- oh, it must be four inches by seven inches. It's quite small but as soon as I got a handle on what we were actually doing, the twining and the design elements and what it was, it was, like, "Oh, my gosh. These are my baskets only they're in wool." It's not done with a loom.
NEA: It's not done with a loom, when you weave the robes?
Teri Rofkar: Correct. The robes aren't done with a loom. It's just a frame. There's a stick with holes in it. It doesn't even have to have holes if you don't want but the warp came down freely. The warps are a leg spun material. They're all wool in the case of Ravens tail. We don't know what the actual name is. It was a form of Tlingit weaving. It was found on the north coast, even as far south as, like, Juno and Sitka. Mountain goat wool was the material and we have lots of mountain goats. They're beautiful animals living way on the top of our mountains.
NEA: Now I'm looking at a couple of pictures of your robes and it looks like there's more than just wool on them. Is that true or is that something that you've done with the wool?
Teri Rofkar: It's something I've done with the wool, the tassels hanging down. And the primary colors are the natural color of the mountain goat which is quite white. It's even a little whiter than sheep's wool which has a yellowish tone and then a very, very dark brown which you would get by hemlock bark, kind of boiling it up and cooking it into, kind of a little stew with your wool and then a yellow that's almost chartreuse green. It's just vivid. It was from wolf moss, not really a moss, a lichen that grows up in the trees. And that was the pallet, those simple colors, and it was primarily with the dark brown and the white that you would weave and then occasionally in certain areas you would run that yellow in replacing the white. You don't even see it from a distance but when you get up close, it's just like this little element of excitement. It just makes you smile.
It's delightful but those were the materials, so the design elements that I use, I know the definitions of the designs because they were also retained in the basketry which kept going. I think they declared our baskets dead in the ‘50s but there were still a few people who had the knowledge and there are still just about that small a number of people who have the knowledge now.
NEA: You opened an exhibit called Life Strands at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and you showed three robes and they each tell a story.
Teri Rofkar: They do. When you weave a robe, you know, you spend probably a year-- not quite that now because I'm not using drop spindle. I'm using a spinning wheel. When I spin the wool it takes me a good six months anyway and then once you've got the wool spun then you can start weaving the robe. A robe like one of those takes -- I guess for me they take between 800 and 1,400 hours just to weave. So I spend a tremendous amount of time in the frame and in the presence, you know, actively engaged in the weaving. And I think when I did the earthquake robe about the 1964 earthquake and I was weaving it in a public venue and had so many people come in and the questions were always the same. "So why do you these tell stories?" I'm, like, "Well, I don't know. You know, we weren't able to ever ask."
Grandma didn't talk about this weaving. Grandma was born in 1800s. It was probably already gone 100 years by the time she was born, so we have no idea how old these are. They've never been dated but I guess the point about the story is I had to really, kind of, do some soul searching because I kept hearing this question and honestly at 800 to 1,400 hours -- that's a full year of my life, if this didn't have a story when I started it would by the time I finished. There's no venue for teaching so much like we used to, at least I haven't found one that's a workable method. But I guess I'm hoping that the pieces that I create are the teachers. They'll be looking at them, you know, 200 years from now, "Ah, this is what they were doing." And I think for me our artwork has such an essence of place. It's such a reflection of just a dynamic, kind of, lifestyle but the huge land, the glaciers, the animals, the ocean, it's so strong and powerful up here. The art has to equally be so strong and powerful. But one of the things that I find interesting is that so many of our really powerful works of art have to do with the legends. Maybe it was a historical event from many, many years ago, an origin of a clan group based on, perhaps, the flood time or, you know, the bears showed us the way to go to high ground as the water rose because global warming's not new.
NEA: Can we talk a little bit about your baskets?
Teri Rofkar: We can. I am a basket weaver. It means I have to spend my every spring out in the woods digging spruce roots under those trees on beautiful beaches, you know, areas where there's just spruce trees, usually sand or fine gravel. I spend hundreds of hours out in the woods. I can close my eyes and I can smell it.
NEA: Is spruce the material you typically for your baskets?
Teri Rofkar: Correct. The Tlingit basketry is the roots of the spruce tree and it's the young spruce. So I go out in the spring and I dig the roots. Within just a couple of hours of digging them I need to roast them in a really large fire and then peel the bark off and then I begin splitting them. The rule of thumb is for about every one hour you spend on your hands and knees digging, you have eight to ten hours of preparation afterwards. And then once you get them prepared and split down to the size you need for weaving, you can set them aside until you have enough for a basket and then usually in the wintertime is when I weave. There is such a tactile richness to it and again, it has to do as much with the smell and the feel as, you know, taking it from the very beginning and creating a watertight vessel. It's so rewarding and I'll be honest, obsessive compulsive gets a bad rap in today's world.
NEA: Well, looking at the intricacy of one of the images of your baskets and the one I'm looking at is round and it seems to have a lid on it with almost like a knob on top and it's this incredible pattern, almost like a fern pattern that's woven through.
Teri Rofkar: And the maidenhair fern is the coloring on it if it's got a brown tone to it. Maidenhair fern is just a beautiful little fern and it grows just out of the rocks in the cliffs and you just use the stem of it and again, it's that time in the woods that it's usually soaking wet wherever they are. They love just the moisture of this rich rain forest we live in. And I harvest the stems and my husband's great, he said, "Oh, gutting stems today."
It's much like gutting a fish. You have to slice it open, pull the center out, and then scrape it and you're just using that exterior bark of the fern stem. And the fern stem isn't an eighth of an inch around, it's tiny. When you get done you actually incorporate the fern stem itself into the basket, so I can go into the natural history museum and there are exquisite baskets with gorgeous fern. It won't fade.
NEA: Now you won an award from the Smithsonian.
Teri Rofkar: I did. I was never the same after that. I wonder if this award that I just received will be the same as that. In 2003 I won a visiting scholar award. What it did was it allowed me to go back to the east coast where most of our old baskets and robes are on this continent. I just spent three weeks looking, photographing, taking notes. I sat and wove with old baskets. I had done basketry up to the point where design elements were to be introduced so that I could sit with old ones and, kind of re-learn some of the old techniques that I'd never seen happening or had never tried from our basketry. And there was something wonderful about just spending that time and recognizing what they had to share with me and also that I was actively engaged in keeping their legacy alive. It's like visiting individuals. We have conversations. I'll look at something and then I'll kind of make a note about something and in looking so detailed at it, the basket will present something else completely different that I hadn't been paying attention to. And it goes back and forth like that and again, it's like a conversation.
NEA: You've taught or you've worked with a Sea Alaska Heritage Institute.
Teri Rofkar: I have a little bit, not so much. I actually mostly taught in the form of demonstrating to the broader public. I have worked with the Alaska State Council on the Arts in a wonderful program that is a master apprenticeship and that really provides a much more -- I don't want to say a realistic method of instructing because these take so much time. And if I teach a class we're all at the same place for the very first day and then everyone learns it individually, so I am just a mad woman running around trying to put out fires till I'm just bonkers. So if I work one-on-one we can go at the speed that the apprentice needs to go. So I've worked with the master apprenticeship program with the Alaska State Council on the Arts. I have done some classes but I don't know that they're as effective but I do feel like in a demonstrating capacity there is a component of education that's so important, that we're not dead. We're still alive. If you go to any of the museums on the east coast, you pretty much get the concept that the Tlingits don't do basketry anymore. They haven't purchased baskets there since, like, the ‘30s. Yeah, we're not dead yet, but almost.
NEA: Are you very worried about your heritage and it being lost to future generations?
Teri Rofkar: I am. I am. You know, in this country it's, like, "Oh, there's such an urgency to save the culture that's lost and so we're sending a group to Thailand and we sent a group to Tibet and we're sending a group to Mongolia and that's wonderful." And yet, have you looked-- do you know how difficult it is to be a traditional artist in this country? The time is just incredible. My daughter weaves, some friends, that age group of 30s and 20s, they know it's important but they're just trying to pay the rent. You have to decide, "Am I going to put fuel in my car to go to work or am I going to put fuel in my house to keep it warm because I've got a two year old at home?" That's a tough choice and when I weave my baskets, you know, a three inch by three inch basket takes about 200 hours. And everybody's good about pointing out, "Well, you know, you can't get paid for your time," and I'm sure that's true but at some point how important is it in the bigger picture for all of us? Maybe not, but I am encouraged and there are some young gals like my daughter and some of them are weaving some baskets and they're smart. They're not even trying to sell them because there's no market. Who would buy them? So they pick berries in them. They use them.
NEA: So it's back to the original plan for them. I mean, they originally were created for use.
Teri Rofkar: It is. That's correct and so that's where we're at and that's exciting. It is exciting. We fit it in when we can but in the old days it was recognized as an actual career, you know. According to grandma, if you've gotten good enough with the weaving, you didn't do any of those other chores. You were a weaver and if you wanted to barter, you know, there are family groups that built canoes and you would weave the robes and you would weave the baskets for the family. And there would be a party and there would be an exchange.
Not so much anymore. It's kind of looped into art for art's sake and we never had a word for art in our culture. The art was part of everything. Art was that berry basket that you used every year that your grandma, your great grandmother or your great-great grandmother did. You know, they last about 200 years. When I say it takes me 200 hours to do one of those baskets, that's ghastly. I'm, like, visitors come in an go, "Well, that's ridiculous," but when you think about it and you use it, this beautiful piece which is art most of the year and functional for a small period of time, all of a sudden one hour a year, it's not so bad. Not so bad. We just have a different way of looking at things.
NEA: What would have to happen for weaving to be given the respect and the value that it deserves?
Teri Rofkar: Again I'm optimistic. For example there was some discussion a few years ago with one of the larger institutes on the east coast. There are probably less than 60 of those robes in the world, the Ravens tail robes that I do, including all the old ones. The Smithsonian doesn't have one. There's only one on this continent that's old and it's at Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But so a large museum wants to display a robe, they need it for an exhibit, can commission it but here's the really sad thing, the context of the robes and their dancing-- I don't know if you have any images of [the robes] dancing. It just comes to life.
The tassels just fly and they just engulf the dance. It's just this movement that's so flowing but what if it was a relationship in that context as the dance groups had access to the robe, rather than storing it in the back room of a museum on the east coast? Maybe it gets stored with the dance group who can't possibly afford it? I take my robes and they dance them for a while but then I have to send them off to the museum or wherever they're going because the dance groups can't afford them and I can't afford to give them to them. But if, perhaps, we had a relationship with the museum, then rather than storing it in a back room, there's an exhibit coming and the robe goes on display. You know it would be actively engaged in a culture and the museum would actively be engaged in that culture as well. I think somehow we need to broaden our viewpoint.
I think when the museums make that leap of faith from old objects -- we do have to record the past but there is a rich history in an active, vibrant, native community. There are native artists here that just -- they inspire me and they're not out there in the kind of venue that I am but they're equally as excellent. So I think that again, it's something that we would all be enriched by. Relationship with place.
Those are some conversations I'm starting here in the environmental movement It's almost as if the definition of indigenous, the native communities are always saying sustainability, you know, and we say subsistence which sounds like we're just barely surviving but it's relationship with place, right? There are a lot more people starting to embrace relationship with place. These arts, they reflect that.
NEA: And finally, tell me how you found out you won the NEA National Heritage Fellowship and what you thought when that happened?
Teri Rofkar: It was so humbling. Oh, boy, oh, gee. You know, I had done a robe for an exhibit that I was just really moved to make, but it was one of the first times that I had done a robe that wasn't a commission piece. So I spent a whole year not really getting paid. I think I had sold something last August but then I sold one basket in December but I had not sold anything all winter. And I was contemplating cleaning houses.
I mean, it's okay. It's good. I could do it while I could still weave. I could set my own hours. This is kind of scary since I'm, kind of like, "Well, you're the top of the game." I said, "Yeah, and I'm contemplating cleaning houses because I'll make a whole lot more than doing my artwork," But, I got this phone call and I didn't believe them. It was like, you can't joke around about it. It's too important. It was real and I was, like, "So, I'm in the running?" They said, "No, no, you actually are a recipient."
I didn't know what to say. It was overwhelming, and to be recognized on that level among your peers was huge. It's not just economic, and yet I cannot say how much that helps. I mean, I honestly can't say how much that helps but that living treasure, holy cow – I was just overwhelmed.
I have to say that I was working so hard and then when I got the award it was, like, "Oh, my gosh. How can I work any harder? What does this mean? What am I gonna do?"
Thank goodness, I have a higher power, the God who answers my questions when I need it. And it was not one week later I was I was in Philadelphia working on a paying gig. I've got a book that I'm working on with the University of Pennsylvania Museum. They have almost 500 of our baskets and they are taking that leap of faith and not just quoting me, not just consulting, but they're allowing me to be author about these baskets. I was at the museum and they put it out over the Internet to everyone in house. Everybody was calling me a living treasure. "I've never eaten lunch with a living treasure." And I said, "No, me either."
But someone said, "Say, there's a group coming to the museum. They'll be here day after tomorrow, could you speak to them?" It was a group of international cultural preservationists from all over the world. The state department brought them over. I have to tell you it was so moving to be able to share what I do with them. They were from Afghanistan, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, places I didn't even know where they were in the world. Anyway, there were 17 of them. They did understand English. I brought some of my clan objects out, introduced them as if they were family members which is appropriate in our context. I told them about my project, about recapturing the weaving and that I was one of the ones that could weave a basket of this style and that there were few. But I was able to empower them and say, "You know, it's the culture bearers, these objects that you see on the table, they do have a shelf life but the culture bearers within your communities, within your countries, they're the fragile ones, you know." I tried to stay straight, you know, I kind of reached towards my stomach and pulled it out. It's those gut kind of conversations. I have since got a call from Kazakhstan and they would like me to come over and do a presentation or a workshop and I guess again it takes it to a global level. And I was almost relieved. It was, like, okay, I'm not saying anything different. I'm still staying online with what I do but I have a broader audience now and I think that was because of you guys.