NEA Arts Magazine

Delores Churchill

Haida traditional weaver, Ketchikan, Alaska

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Delores E. Churchill demonstrates Haida basketweaving during the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert. Photo by Tom Pich

Delores Churchill is a Haida master weaver of baskets, hats, robes, and other regalia. Using such materials as spruce root, cedar bark, wool, and natural dyes, she creates utilitarian and ceremonial objects of unmatched beauty and cultural significance.

Churchill learned these skills from her mother, Selina Peratrovich, a nationally recognized master weaver. Peratrovich asked her daughter to burn her baskets for the first five years of the apprenticeship. "I am well known for my baskets," Peratrovich told her daughter. "If you say you learned from me, you better be good." Churchill's honors include a Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist Award, the Governor's Award for the Arts, and an Alaska State Legislative Award. She continues to teach young people the knowledge and skills related to the weaving tradition, observing: "As long as Native art remains in museums, it will be thought of in the past tense."

In this excerpt from an interview with the NEA, Churchill reminisced about how her children learned to weave and teaching others Tlingit weaving.

NEA: Did your children learn weaving in the traditional way?

DELORES CHURCHILL: Yes. In fact one time when [my daughter] April was visiting my mother, she said, "Grandmother, I would like to learn to weave," and Mother said, "No, no, my dear. You'll neglect your housework and your children if you start weaving so, no, you shouldn't do that." So April would just drop in and sit by Mother and watch her weave. Then one day she came in with a basket and put it in front of my mother who asked, "Who made that nice basket?" And April said, "I did, Grandmother." From then on, Mother started teaching her.

A seaweed basket

A seaweed basket by Delores E. Churchill. Photo courtesy of Delores E. Churchill

NEA: What advice do you have for young basket makers?

CHURCHILL: It takes years before one can do a basket like the ones I see in the museums. It's just like ballet. My daughter took ballet. She wasn't allowed to get into toe shoes for years. She had to learn all the steps and all the moves before she could get into toe shoes. Its the same thing with basketry. Before you can do an artistic piece there are years when you're just learning to prepare your materials. Preparing your material is actually the most important part of it. When the university asked me to teach an evening class because there were so many people wanting to learn to do basketry, my mother told me, "You're not ready." For the next two years all I did was material preparation.