Six people purchase historic Chilkat robe at auction, give to SHI

Image provided by Sealaska Heritage Institute

Six people in the Lower 48 have purchased an historic naaxein (Chilkat robe) at auction and donated it to Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), where it can be studied by artists to perpetuate this ancient and endangered art form.

The robe, estimated to be at least 150 years of age by the highly esteemed Haida Chilkat weaver Evelyn Vanderhoop, has great historical significance because its design appeared on the first robe of its kind traded from the Tsimshian to the Chilkat Tlingits in Klukwan, she said.

“The history of the robe and the honor this design continues to receive from the Chilkat people make this a very valuable acquisition,” Vanderhoop said.

SHI President Rosita Worl, a Chilkat Tlingit from Klukwan, called the donation a wonderful gift.

“We are grateful and indebted to the people who came together to make this extraordinary donation to SHI. Our ancestor is coming home to teach our weavers about this ancient art form and design. This is a joyous occasion for us,” Worl said. 

The Tsimshian people pioneered the technique of Chilkat weaving, one of the most difficult and complex art forms in the world. After the Klukwan Tlingits acquired that first robe, Chilkat women took it apart and learned how to weave the robes themselves, said Worl, an anthropologist. The weavers were so prolific, the blankets became known as Chilkat robes.

SHI staff became aware the robe was for sale through MBA Seattle Auction House, but its $39,000 price put it beyond the nonprofit’s reach.

That’s when a perfect storm ensued. Three weavers, including Vanderhoop, Lily Hope and Kandi McGilton, contacted Dr. Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, the curator of Northwest Native art at the Burke Museum in Washington, searching for a way to stop the robe from returning to private hands, where it had lived for many years. Together, they encouraged a small group of donors to purchase the robe and donate it to SHI so that it would be accessible to Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people for study in perpetuity.

“I think the redeeming part about the story is that all of us can work together to make these good things happen,” said Bunn-Marcuse. “We can come together across different institutions and communities to make sure that historical creations are accessible to contemporary artists and community members.”

Two of the donors, Bob and Rita Moore, have a deep connection to SHI. They attended SHI’s biennial Celebration for the first time in 2014 and have gone to every event since (except 2020, when it was virtual due to the pandemic). They’ve also made contributions to SHI that included funds to establish SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building and its Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus, among other donations.

It was important to them to help return the robe to the people who pioneered and perpetuated the art form.

“In learning about Northwest Coast Indigenous art, we have become aware that many of the historic items currently in non-Indigenous hands were at best sold under duress, and at worst outright stolen. So, we are delighted to help bring a culturally important object like this robe back to the people it came from,” Bob Moore said.

Other donors included Nancy Kovalik, Martha and Eugene Nester and Ashley Verplank McClelland.

Tlingit weaver and teacher Lily Hope said she is grateful that another handwoven teacher is coming home.

“My students and I look to historic Chilkat works for technical mastery, inspiration and permission to allow flaws. We’re looking forward to visiting with her when she arrives,” Hope said.

The institute plans to hold a ceremony to welcome the robe home and bring the spirits back to life.

Provenance of the Robe and Design

MBA Seattle Auction House provided no provenance nor information on the identities of current or past owners of the robe. The robe appeared at auction in 2022, and information on an auction site at that time revealed it was recently owned by an individual in Seattle who had acquired it from a woman there on March 4, 1957.

Regarding the design, Vanderhoop — who studied at the Museum of Natural History in New York in 2000 — examined a robe with the same pattern and found, in their archives, a document written by Lieutenant George Thornton Emmons, an ethnographic photographer who from the late 1800s spent 40 years researching and documenting Native cultures in Southeast Alaska.

In the document, Emmons stated that the pattern on the robe was the first one to be traded to the northern Tlingit.

In 2017, Vanderhoop found another document by Emmons at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. According to the document, Emmons, in his official duty as a Naval officer, traveled to Klukwan in 1887 and was hosted by Chief Chartrich. According to Emmons, Chief Chartrich was the owner of a robe of this pattern, and Chartrich informed him of its history. In the document, Emmons stated the pattern was on the first Chilkat robe traded from the Tsimshian.

The original robe is thought to be in the collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Vanderhoop said.