NEWS_SHI acquires last Chilkat robe made by master weaver Jennie Thlunaut

NEWS_SHI acquires last Chilkat robe made by master weaver Jennie Thlunaut

Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: December 22nd, 2020

Seller slashes asking price to bring acquisition to fruition

August 27, 2018

(About Jennie Thlunaut)

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has acquired the last Chilkat robe ever made by the famed Tlingit weaver Jennie Thlunaut, one of the most celebrated Northwest Coast master weavers of the twentieth century who is credited with single-handedly keeping the tradition alive.

SHI was able to purchase the robe because the sellers, former Juneau residents Dr. Robert and Winni Page, agreed to slash the price to approximately one fourth of what the piece is thought to be worth, said SHI President Rosita Worl.

“Sealaska Heritage is a nonprofit with limited resources, and we couldn’t pay full price. The uncommon generosity of these donors means that our artists will be able to study Chilkat weaving from the master herself, who made the robe at the end of her life and was considered to be a national living treasure,” said Worl, who is Jennie’s granddaughter and co-author of the biography Jennie Thlunaut, Master Chilkat Blanket Artist featured in the book The Artists Behind the Work. SHI Director of Culture and History Dr. Chuck Smythe also co-wrote the piece.

Dr. Page for years served as the only ophthalmologist in Juneau and the surrounding villages. Every year, he spent eight weeks traveling by boat to Southeast Alaska communities to treat patients with eye conditions. That was how he met Jennie.

He was so highly regarded that Wóochx Kaduhaa (Jimmie George, Sr.) of Angoon adopted him into the Dakl’aweidí (Killer Whale) clan. Shortly after the adoption, Jennie went to Dr. Page to offer the robe for sale. Dr. Page believes she wanted him to have it because he was adopted into a Tlingit clan.

Dr. Page, now 86, recently began to ponder what to do with it, and their former Juneau neighbor, Rose Risley, recommended that he contact SHI.

“I was worried about what to do with it because it is such an outstanding icon of Native art and history in Southeast Alaska,” said Dr. Page. “It is very pleasing to me and my wife, Winni, that the blanket is now at Sealaska Heritage Institute. That is where it should be.”

The robe is small and apparently made for a child. The provenance for the robe includes a notarized statement made by Jennie when she sold it to Dr. Page in 1985. In the statement, Jennie described the materials she used:

“I, Jennie M. Thlunaut, as the last of the authentic traditional Chilkat Blanket weavers certify that all the listed materials are true. The warp is made of yellow cedar bark with goat wool spun on the outer part of the warp. The yellow and black border is commercial wool and the rest of the blanket is real goat wool yarn dyed with commercial dye. The reason for the mixture of genuine goat wool and commercial wool and dye is the shortage of genuine materials. The goat wool is useable only when the goat hunting is out of season and against the law to hunt, and the native dyes are now hard to find because of the disappearance of certain trees and plants … This blanket is the last one I will be weaving.”

(SHI advocates on issues that affect Native cultures and one area staff is addressing is better access to mountain goat wool.)

The design on the robe tells the Tlingit story Raven as Matchmaker. In the story, Raven successfully schemes to kill a fat deer by pretending to betroth him to his daughter. At the time of the sale, Jennie told the story in Tlingit while her daughter translated and transcribed it in English, said Dr. Page. The transcript of the story, as told by Jennie, is part of the robe’s provenance.

An appraiser in 2001 noted he knew of only one other miniature Chilkat robe, which was made by Jennie in the mid 1970s for her grandson, he wrote.

It is the only weaving by Jennie Thlunaut in SHI’s ethnographic collection. The institute will make it available to artists and scholars for study. 

About Jennie Thlunaut

Shax’saani Kéek’ (Jennie Thlunaut) was born on May 18, 1892, in Laxacht’áak, an area within the Jilkáat Kwáan (Chilkat Territory) of the northern Tlingit in Southeast Alaska. Her mother, Kaakwdagáan (Ester), belonged to the Eagle Kaagwaantaan clan in Angoon, and her father, Yaandakinyéil (Mathew Johnson), was a member of the Raven Gaanaxteidí clan in Klukwan. Jennie was an Eagle from the Kaagwaantaan clan. At the age of 10, her mother began to teach her how to make Chilkat weavings.

During her life, she became a master Chilkat weaver and taught the art practice to a few select apprentices, including the late Chilkat weaver Clarissa Rizal and Anna Brown Ehlers, who were both named National Heritage Fellows for their Chilkat weavings by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Jennie was named a National Heritage Fellow in 1986. The award is the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

Because Jennie took on apprentices, the art form survives today. She Walked into the Forest in 1986 at the age of 94, one year after she sold the Chilkat robe to Dr. Page.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, SHI Media and Publications Director, 907.586.9116,; Dr. Robert and Winni Page, 804.883.6026.  

Captions:  Jennie Thlunaut with weaving apprentice Anna Brown Ehlers. Jennie and Anna both were named National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986 and 2017 respectively. The award is the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. Sealaska Heritage Institute, William L. Paul, Sr., Archives; Chilkat robe purchased by SHI, photo by Nobu Koch.

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