“After learning Chilkat, I gained the art of patience, the way of gratitude, and the act of compassion. The universe opened its doors with a flood of information; the kind of information not definable, yet powerfully written in our Native art, in the ways of our people, and in our commune with nature.”
Clarissa Rizal, member of the Raven T’akDein Taan (black-legged kittiwake) Clan of Hoonah/Glacier Bay, Alaska, is a highly respected cultural leader and a multitalented artist who has contributed to the revival and perpetuation of the Chilkat blanket weaving. These difficult and time-consuming twined robes made of wool and cedar bark depict highly stylized images of the crests which embody a clan’s history and eminence. In the gender-divided world of Tlingit art, a Chilkat robe is the female equivalent of the male-carved totem pole. In addition to Chilkat weaving, Rizal has perfected the Ravenstail technique, an earlier, more geometric type of Tlingit weaving, and has also created blankets depicting crest beings in appliqué and buttons. Rizal not only creates fine textiles, which would be sufficient to guarantee her artistic reputation, but she makes paintings, collages, and drawings that integrate the formline style of historic Tlingit art with modernist visions, creating almost surrealist two-dimensional works of visual intensity and drama.
Several Tlingit elders mentored Rizal. Harry K. Bremner, Sr., taught her Native songs and dance and basketweaver Selina Peretrovich trained her to make spruce root baskets. But, perhaps most significantly, Rizal trained in Chilkat weaving by 1986 NEA National Heritage Fellow Jennie Thlunaut. When she first started weaving with Thlunaut, the oldest living woman trained in this complex textile technique at that time, almost no one knew how to make these powerful and, by that time, rare robes. Following her mentor’s directive to teach others how to weave, Rizal has educated scores of students in Chilkat, Ravenstail, and button robe techniques. Today at clan ceremonies as well as public festivals, the abundance of such textiles being worn and danced with is a testament to Rizal’s training, influence, and inspiration. More than a mentor, Rizal’s vision to create a community of artists dedicated to Northwest Coast Native heritage inspired her to organize the Biennial Northwest Coast Native Artists’ Gathering and assemble the Shaax ’SaaniKeek’ Weavers’ Circle of Chilkat and Ravenstail weavers. Her passion for community participation in artistic creative projects recently led to the creation of “Weavers Across the Water,” a Chilkat-Ravenstail robe composed of squares woven by 54 weavers which she sewed together to create blanket that will be used in celebrations of Northwest Coast canoe launchings and other ceremonies.
Rizal’s weavings have received Best in Show at the Heard Museum Indian Art Fair, the Santa Fe Artists Market, the Anchorage Museum All Alaska Juried Art Show, and the Sealaska Heritage Invitational Art Exhibit. She has had visiting artist fellowships at the Pilchuk Art School in Washington state, the Rasmuson Foundation, in Alaska, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Vancouver, Washington, and the Smithsonian Creative Capital Grant from the First Peoples Fund in Rapid City, South Dakota, and a George Kaiser Foundation Tulsa Artist Residency.
Bio by Aldona Jonaitis, director, University of Alaska Museum of the North
Interview with Clarissa Rizal by Josephine Reed for the NEA
Edited by Kathryn Brough
NEA: Did you grow up learning your own traditions, or did you grow up in a household that was more assimilated?
Clarissa Rizal: I grew up in a household that was more assimilated, and there was a reason for that. My mother, who is part Filipino and Tlingit, grew up in an upbringing where she was not allowed to speak her language. They were not allowed to do anything that was so-called “Native.” My father grew up in the Philippines, he was part Filipino. When he came to Alaska in his early 20s, he came as a fisherman. And my mother and father met, and they agreed that neither would teach the children how to speak their respective languages. My father's was Filipino, Tagalog, and my mother’s was the Tlingit Indian language, so none of us six children learned the language. I didn’t even know what Native was until I was 16. I didn’t know that there was a distinction between the cultures.
NEA: And what happened at 16 that led you to discover that there was an entire culture?
Clarissa Rizal: At the age of 14 I had my first job interview, and the director asked me if I was Native. And I shook my shoulders, and I said, “I don’t know. What does that mean?” And she said, “Young lady, if you don’t know what you are, how do you know what you’re going to become?” So when I got home, my mother asked me, “Well, how was your job interview?” And I said, “Well, it was okay, but she asked me if I was Native. What does that mean, Mom? What does ‘Native’ mean?” She was cooking at the stove. And she couldn’t believe that I was asking that question. And I looked at her. “Mom, what does it mean?” Total innocence and ignorance; I had no concept. My mother just started to laugh, and she laughed and laughed and laughed, to the point there she left the kitchen, went into the bathroom, and closed the door. Now, she might have shed some tears. At any rate, whatever the case is, I just kind of went on with the rest of my day.
And then when I was 16, I came across this magazine called Akwesasne Notes. This was something that woke me up. It was 1972, and it talked about all the atrocities all across North America, both Canada, United States, about what happened with the Native peoples. And so I did this study, and then I got into the political aspects of things, the Native politics and the Western politics and the atrocities, and I couldn’t believe it. I just cried. And I realized, this is why. Even though I was brilliant and bright in school, all the way through school, there was a level of oppression, meaning I wasn’t allowed to do certain things because the school system didn’t want us to advance. They didn’t want us to get too smart, too educated—just enough education so that you become a blue collar worker. If you wanted to become a PhD, you wanted to become self-employed, you wanted to become president of the United States— forget it. And I was hurt. I read all those books, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Black Elk Speaks, all these books by Vine Deloria, and whatever I could get my hands on back then.
And so for the next four years that’s what I did. Back then, there was no movement in Alaska. There was in the Southwest, in the lower 48, and especially out East amongst the seven Confederate tribes on the East Coast. But after four years of politics, and anger, hurt, pain, and trying to figure out what to do about it to help people, to help the Native-American people, I decided am I going to continue down this path of politics or am I going to go along the line of arts, because I’m not going to mix the two. I decided to go down [the path of] art at the age of 20. I’ve been a full time artist for 40 years and raised three children that are all grown now.
NEA: How did art come into your life?
Clarissa Rizal: When I was 14, 15, I was introduced to the Native song and dance by way of Harry K. Bremner, Sr., out of Yakutat, Alaska. He came to Juneau, Alaska, as one of a team of four very elderly Native men who came from their respective villages, and came to the big city of Juneau to teach a class in Tlingit language, protocol, songs, dance, art, all of that. Harry took me under his wing and taught me how to do the songs from his area, because he didn’t want them to die, and eventually taught me how to sew. I had my very first sewing lesson with him. He was a tailor—one of his many trades: boat builder, trailer, musician, singer, songwriter. He was self-sufficient and one of the most amazing dancers I’ve ever seen dance. He led me into sewing, and song and dance, and then he died the year that my son was born, 1977. I apprenticed with him for five years. And when he died, I put all of that on the back burner, because I was adjusting to being a new mom. And then I was adjusting to being self-employed, because I had always worked for the governor’s office, or Bureau of Indian Affairs, as a clerk typist. My parents wanted me to have a steady job with medical and dental and a pension plan, and I didn’t even understand what any of that was at the time that I was young. What does that all mean? I decided to stay home with my son. After that first year I just went, “No. I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do.” And so what I started doing was sewing costumes for theater, sewing clothing for people, crocheting hats. And that’s what I did on the sideline when my kids were little. And that led me into doing my art, the Native art, and regalia. I went back into making regalia.
NEA: How did you move into weaving?
Clarissa Rizal: That wasn’t until about ten years later. I was asked to be an apprentice with the last of the traditional Chilkat weavers, Jennie [Thlunaut]. I was totally surprised when I got this call, that she wanted me to start apprenticing with her. At that time in my life I had a landscape company. So when I got that invitation, I was totally surprised, because anytime I saw Jennie in the public for a whole year, she never acknowledged me. She’d see me and she’d turn around. She knew who I was. I knew who she was. Well, I didn’t find out until after the apprenticeship, when she said, “Many people are going to want to learn from you. This is not just for anybody. This kind of weaving is not just for anybody. If you don’t know the person and their character, you watch them like the way I watched you.” Right there, then and there, the light bulb went on. That’s what she was doing.
This kind of weaving is a spiritual practice and not everybody is born to tamper with the spiritual side, the spiritual aspects of Chilkat weaving, because of their ego. Their ego is too big. Their ego is not in line, not in harmony with the spirit of Chilkat weaving. If their ego is not in line, there is a distortion in the energy field of the spirit of Chilkat. There’s a certain power. I’m not talking about control. I’m talking about pure, raw power, and there’s got to be levels of respect at all times. I mean, she taught me these things, and the way she taught me, I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until years later, the light bulbs go on.
NEA: What materials do you use?
Clarissa Rizal: Mountain goat wool and cedar bark. We’ll use the underbelly of the mountain goat wool, which is the softest area, and then we’ll use the inside bark of the cedar, the Western Yellow Cedar tree. We make a slit. We pull off that initial skin. Right from the tree. We take off the outer bark, and then we scrape it clean. Then we cook all the sap out of the bark and then we split it into fine strips.
NEA: And do you do all this yourself?
Clarissa Rizal: I do it by myself. Most of us are like that. We do all our work by ourselves.
NEA: And what about the images? They are traditional images, but how does that come together for you?
Clarissa Rizal: Most of the images that I’ve done in the past, they were either reproductions or I changed the image slightly and added something new in it to tell the story. As I became more confident as a weaver and as a designer of these robes, I am one of the very few Chilkat weavers out there who knows how to design their own robes. The reason for that is most artists, most female artists, are basket weavers or leather workers or beadwork artists, and they don’t design their own totemic design work. You have to know how to design that, and I had been doing that for a while since I was 16. So by the time I was 35, I could easily draft up a Chilkat robe that could convey a clan crest, like a beaver, or a raven, thunderbird, or it could tell a story, like the story that I tell called “Resilience.” And so the last several robes, I designed all of them and wove them. And I’ve designed robes for other weavers that are currently working on their own.
NEA: The robes tell a story, give a history.
Clarissa Rizal: Yes. We did not have a written language. Ours was an oral history. However, it was oral history that was always backed up with the art: the art in the totem poles, the art on the robes, the designs on the robes, whether they’re Chilkat, Ravenstail, or the button blanket robes, or a painted leather robe, or a bead-worked robe. The event was so-called written down in our regalia, the front of the house, the house posts, the totem poles out front, the huge carved bowls and masks. Every story had an art piece that went with it. That was how we retained our stories. The artwork was our document. The songs were added so that when you’re wearing regalia, it’s like the communication of the history was a holistic approach. You had the visual part. You had the story. The visual part reflected the story. The song reflected the story, so you had the audio part. You had the dance, so you had the physical part in your own body. That’s how these stories were retained. There is no need for a written language.
NEA: As you teach, do you find younger people are drawn to this?
Clarissa Rizal: Now they are. You know why? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. There are blogs and websites. Ever since Facetime and Skype have come into existence, there are more weavers out there, and want-to-be weavers out there, than ever. When you are first learning Chilkat weaving, there are so many things to learn and so many ways to learn it. And you get stuck, and then you’re stumped, and you realize, “I have no one to call on.” And even if you do have someone to call on, and you tell them where you’re at, they can’t see where you’re at. But now that we have Skype, now that we have Facetime, we can just say, “Hey, look, this is where I’m at.” And you can demonstrate on your own phone, on your own weaving, this is what you do.
NEA: And you’re also an accomplished weaver of the Ravenstail technique. How is that different?
Clarissa Rizal: Ravenstail is totally geometric. Chilkat weaving, you go by a visual construct. I don’t have to count. I will use Ravenstail technique only when I don’t have to count, because I’m a Chilkat weaver. I’m too much of an artist that does not like to be tied down or have boundaries to work within. And Ravenstail, because it’s all number-based, if you make one mistake, you have to take it all out. Chilkat weaving, you make a mistake, we’ll just put another warp end in, or it doesn’t need all this thing in. I’ll cheat. Nobody would ever know, but that’s the thing about Chilkat weaving. It allows you the freedom to adjust. That’s why I love Chilkat weaving over Ravenstail, but Ravenstail is a great technique because I can use it within the context of Chilkat weaving. It allows me to do certain things that I can’t do with Chilkat weaving.
NEA: And what does it mean for you to connect to culture through weaving and art?
Clarissa Rizal: It means to create a person of emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being, which then, of course, affects your physical well-being. So many of our young people are lost; even our middle-aged people are lost. With Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving, the women who learn this art form become stronger, especially in their spirit if they’re taught properly. And I saw it in my own self, and I’ve seen it in other students and how it’s carried them through. I’ve seen what it has done in their personal lives, and I know that this type of art form, it not only belongs to us in the sense of we are no longer owners of it, not that kind of belonging, but we belong to it. We belong to the history of it. We belong to the spirit of it and the power, and once we are in line and we adhere to the so-called spiritual laws of the weaving, things fall into place in your life.
It’s not just weaving an art form. You’re weaving an entire culture. You’re weaving an entire family clan. You’re weaving energies that pass between the worlds. You’re in connection with all the past weavers. It’s hard to explain, but every one of my students, as soon as they start weaving on their first robe, they have the same exact experience as if people are standing behind them. All the weavers from the past are standing behind them. I know that feeling. I’ve had it. You’re being supported. They are watching you. They’re going to help keep you in line.
NEA: What does it mean to you to receive this National Heritage Fellowship? What does it say to you also about the work itself?
Clarissa Rizal: My first response was, “Are you sure you have the right person?” When I got off the phone, I sat for two hours at my desk staring out my huge windows in Tulsa, where I’m one of the Tulsa artist residents for a year, thinking about all the people who helped me, inspired me, taught me, led me, guided me.