Master Chilkat Blanket Artist
by Rosita Worl and Charles Smythe
from the Exhibit book “The Artists Behind the Work”
Published by the University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska 1986
Reprinted here with author’s permission
Jennie Thlunaut 1892-1986
Two months before the completion of the exhibition and catalog, Jennie died at the age of 94. We were thankful that many aspects of her early and later years as a Tlingit artists have been described in her biography. She will be remembered as one of the most eminent and celebrated weavers of Tlingit ceremonial robes. Because of her adherence to traditional art forms, designs, and materials in a changing society, Jennie will continue to be a role model for other artists, especially those Tlingit weavers of the Shax’saani Keek’ Guild who were fortunate enough to have watched and learned from her.
My first recollection of my grandmother Jennie Thlunaut goes back to the period when she was living in the Raven House. I recall the happy moments as a little girl picking blueberries and playing on the beach on the beautiful, sunshining days. My grandfather, John Thlunaut, was still alive then. After his death, Jennie left Raven House, according to Tlingit custom, since she was no longer married to a member of the Raven Lukwaax.adi clan. She returned to Klukwan, and it was there that I began to work with her as a colleague.
She encouraged me and supported my work in collecting oral traditions and songs, but she could not understand why I was more immersed in this rather than learning how to weave Chilkat blankets and spruce root baskets. Through the years, Grandma Jennie continued to help me. When I went back East for my graduate studies, she made me a vest with “Alaska” beaded on the back because she wanted people to know I was from Alaska. Later she came back to participate in the “Tlingit Aanee” exhibit which I developed at the Harvard Museum.
When I returned to Alaska, she worked with me and my colleague, Dr. Charles Smythe, on a project on Tlingit property law. It seemed fitting that I should also be able to collaborate with her on her biography. She was already in her early nineties when she began to discuss her life history. Her hearing had begun to fail and it was necessary for me to speak directly into her ear. She also tired easily, and we found that it was best for her if we worked in short intervals. She seemed to be quite eager to work with us if it proceeded more as an informal discussion. My familiarity with Jennie was an asset, but it became apparent during our initial work that it was sometimes a disadvantage. Dr. Smythe, who was present during our discussions, began to ask her questions that I had overlooked because I assumed I already knew much about her life. We decided that it would be best if he continued to play a formal role in the work on her life history. She would also occasionally lapse into Tlingit, and Johnny Marks, another relative of both Grandma Jennie’s and mine, assisted in the translations. After we finished writing Grandma Jennie’s life history, we sent copies of it to members of her family. John Marks also reviewed and commented on the biography. In the years after we finished the biography, Grandma Jennie would often recount incidents in her life, and I was always so amazed that it seemed to be a verbatim account that she had given to us earlier. It indeed has been a pleasure to us to know that when her life history was read to Grandma Jennie, she smiled and seemed to be satisfied with the work.
Shax’saani Keek’ (Younger Sister of the Girls) was born during the spring run of the eulachon in 1892. Her birthplace, Laxacht’aak, was within the Jilkaat Kwaan (Chilkat Territory) of the northern Tlingit in Southeast Alaska. Her mother, Kaakwdagaan (Ester) belonged to the Eagle clan Kaagwaantaan and the Gooch Hit (Wolf House) in Angoon and is a Deisheetaan Yadi. Her father, Yaandakinyeil (Mathew Johnson) was a member of the Raven Gaanaxteidi clan and the Xooch’i Hit Frog House in Klukwan and is a Kaagwaantaan Yadi. The all too brief years of Shax’saani Keek’s early childhood were like any other Tlingit child. She played on the beach, picked berries, gathered wild celery, and threw rocks into the river. She accompanied her parents on their cyclical subsistence round. She traveled with her family in the Tlingit war canoes to visit relatives in other communities and to attend potlatches. Shax’saani Keek’ listened to the great stories of Tlingit history told during he lavish potlatches, stories which told of clan migrations and feasts which were still held in her childhood era.
Shax’saani Keek’ also received her first box of mountain goat yarn from her mother when she was yet a child. She had no idea that she was destined to become one of the most renowned weavers in the nation of naxein, Tlingit ceremonial robes known to the world as Chilkat blankets. Neither could she have known that she, Jennie Thlunaut, as she would become known to the art world, would be one of the last traditional Tlingit Chilkat blanket weavers.
Jennie’s recollections of her early childhood are happy memories. She has a smile on her face and a faraway look in her eyes as she says “my mommy” and “my daddy.” As she talks about the stories of her early life some eighty years ago, it is as if they occurred only yesterday. She recounts her early childhood events with exact detail and with the same exuberance and happiness she must have felt then. She grew up in Klukwan in her father’s tribal house, the Frog House, which is one of the old wooden houses still standing in Klukwan. The Frog House is a shell of its former grandeur. Great and lavish potlaches were once held in this tribal house. The Frog totem pole was sold long ago and, according to Jennie was taken to Juneau. Her parents’ love for her was demonstrated not only through their affection and care, but also through their efforts to ensure that Jennie received the best possible training for a Tlingit girl of her era. Her mother opposed to Jennie attending the Western school at Sheldon Jackson in Sitka, but she learned to read up to the “third reader” from the minister, Mr. Faulkner. A few years ago, Jennie addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage and told the audience, “ I didn’t go to school, but I think I’m all right!”
Jennie Learns Her Skills
Jennie recalls that her auntie named Saantaas’ “knew how to make things.” Her father gave the auntie fifty dollars to teach Jennie’s mother how to make Chilkat blankets. Later her mother would teach her. Jennie cites this as one of the reasons her mother was good. Jennie learned about making baskets, moccasins, beadwork, and blankets from her, as well as skin-sewing. In her words: My mama’s good mama. When I was a kid they gonna leave me alone, any place they go: you go with me: you put dress on! He carry me on his hands all the time. And they learn me how to do something inside the house. You know, that’s why I live longer, see. And here we are, we watchin’ this time: they never take care of kids: they don’t care where they go. Go to show nighttime, everyplace: get mixed up. But, I’m glad–say that I have a good mama. He never leave me behind someplace; he just carry me and tell me get married. Her mother began teaching her to weave blankets and baskets and sew moccasins with beadwork when Jennie was about ten years old. Jennie played at weaving baskets and blankets, and her mother noticed her toy-like products and showed her how to make them properly. She tells of playing with spruce roots with her playmates when she made something “like a spider net.”
After her mother learned from the children who had made the net, she began to show Jennie how to work the materials. She gave Jennie good roots (that is, already split) to work with. “Then I learn it good.” Jennie used to finish about seven baskets in a year. Her father would take them to the store in Skagway and sell them. In springtime, about April, her father would travel to Skagway by canoe. He would make totem poles, and her mother made baskets and moccasins. At that time, moccasins sold for one dollar a pair, and baskets brought from five to seven dollars, depending on the size. That was considered a good price for the baskets. I made lots of money from the baskets.” Later on, she learned to make baskets with tops by herself. (She still makes this type of basket, which sells for three hundred to four hundred dollars to the store in Haines.)
When a German baker opened a store in Haines, Jennie used to take her baskets there to trade or sell. She traded for bread and dry goods. She laughed as she told about trading a little basket for a big sack with “everything in it.” She brought cloth to make dresses, silk, and stockings with her baskets. Making baskets was easy to her. One does not need to spend money and “you just pick the roots yourself. You buy some dye–black, red, different colors. Then dye the grass. That’s all you do.” She learned to split roots after trying to do it with the girl next door. They tried to split the roots themselves, and when her mother found out she was playing this way she showed Jennie how it was done properly. Jennie learned to weave blankets in a similar fashion, her mother provided her with materials and instruction after Jennie was observed playing at weaving. As a young girl, she took some yarn from her mother’s supply and, using a can she used to store her dolls in, positioned a stick across the top and hung yarn on it–”all different colors.” Then they started weaving. She and her playmate’s were going to make a doll’s rug. It was halfway finished when her mama saw it and asked, “Who makes this?” When Jennie responded, her mother said, “How come you put the stick inside? How you gonna pull it out? You should use a string [referring to the methods of attaching the headings cord to the loom beam with strings].” Her mother took the children over to her loom and showed them how to do it. Afterwards, Jennie helped her make the black and yellow border on the blanket, which is how a blanket is started.
Later on, in 1902, Jennie was shown how to weave her first design. She helped her mother make a frog blanket for her father. After 1905, when she was married, her auntie Mrs. Benson (Santaas’) taught her how to count the strands for the designs: “how wide the black, how long the green and yellow.” She learned to use the “design board” to measure the dimension of design elements. Jennie lived in Jones Point after her marriage. It was there that another auntie lived, who was married to her husband’s brother. She taught Jennie how to sew porcupine quills on skin for moccasins. “We learned it from the (Interior) Indian people; they dye it from different colors. It is just like beadwork–it’s good, the quills never come out for a long time. You twist it around the thread and sew it on.”
Her sister-in-law taught her to knit. “I know how to knit, and the crochet, and the embroidery.” Jennie’s Isolation Period Jennie, like all Tlingit girls of her status, received special training. The Tlingits believe that life-long habits and attributes are shaped during early adolescence. Young girls are awakened early in the morning so they will not be late-morning sleepers in later life. They are required to walk wearing a hat with a wide brim without shaking the hat. This is to teach girls to walk in stately manner.
During their first menstruation they are isolated in the back room of the tribal house. Jennie recalls that she was isolated for a period of seven to ten days. She explains that she does not have gray hair because during the isolation period her mother and her mother’s oldest sister, Kinjee, washed her hair with a special shampoo. Other Tlingits have suggested that the special shampoo was blueberry juice. Jennie recalls the events: They bring water in my room, basin and he’s [they] got something in it. Crazy, I don’t find out what it is. And she says,” You grandma used to use this shampoo, you going to use it. You not going to get gray hair right away.” My grandma, my mama’s mother, still black just like mine. They didn’t get no gray hair. But I’m sorry I don’t ask what it is, that Indian shampoo.”
Jennie Reaches Adulthood According to Tlingit tradition, marriages are arranged.
So it was for Jennie that her parents told her of her impending marriage: “We are poor people, but that guy is high class. Be a good girl!” Her first husband was a member of Tlingit nobility whose mother came from the Shakes family of Wrangell. At the age of thirteen, in October 1905, she left her parents and married a Gaanaxteidi man, John James. Jennie recalls that her husband’s mother and sister came. Her mother brought money. It was an “Indian marriage.” Jennie tells that her mother and father also gave her husband the Chilkat blanket with a Frog crest that she and her mother had made in 1902. Later her husband would go to Juneau and sell the blanket to buy a war canoe. Her husband was an industrious man. He worked hard in both wage labor and subsistence fishing. He used the war canoe to haul freight from Haines to the gold mine up the Chilkat River to the Porcupine gold fields. He “transported” all kinds of tools and groceries to use at the gold mine.” Since there was no road at the time, he was busy all through the summer of 1906 hauling freight.
In 1908 or 1909, he worked in the gold mine at Porcupine during the summer months. They lived together at the mining camp. Jennie recalls with particular delight and in vivid detail her trip to Klawock in 1910. Her husband was out trolling when she saw the Klawock women returning with sacks filled with black seaweed. She asked them where they picked the seaweed. They told her out on the island. Young Jennie ran to her husband and said, “You better pick some for me, I want to dry some!” “No, he don’t listen, he like trolling.” Jennie then pleaded with her sister-in-law (Henry Phillip’s wife) “Maggie, let’s go out to the beach, see how it looks.” Maggie responded, “You don’t know how to do.” Jennie pleaded again, “No, let’s go. The older women pick lots of seaweed.” Her sister-in-law relented and off they went with two sacks and a rope. They tied the rope around Jennie who climbed down the rocks to gather seaweed. Maggie was to watch the waves and pull Jennie up before they reached her. They came back to camp ever so happy with their two bags full of seaweed. They cleaned the rocks where they could spread their seaweed out to dry. Jennie laughs, “I see the women folks go down. Oh, I feel good. I got it!” Jennie recalls the women began examining her black seaweed and they started laughing, “Look at that Chilkat People, they pick something different kind of black seaweed.” Jennie remembers, “I hear it good. And then I run to Maggie–‘Maggie we pick some wrong one, not black seaweed. The women folk was laughing down there. And I watch and they go home, two of them. I go down there. I throw away in water.” They had gathered what the Tlingit call “rock fat.” Jennie then returned to Maggie and said, “I not going to cook for your brother!” Jennie recalls that she returned to her tent and climbed into bed. She even refused to build a fire. Around four or five o’clock, her husband returned home. He asked Jennie, “What’s wrong, you sick?” She refused to answer. He asked again, “What’s wrong?” It all comes tumbling out: “You don’t want to pick the black seaweed for me, that’s why I don’t cook for you. I pick the different one; the women folk were laughing!” Jennie recalls her husband’s words, “Oh, no, come on get up.” Maggie had cooked for both her husband and brother. Maggie’s husband, Harry also came over to persuade Jennie to join them for dinner, “Come on and eat with us.” Jennie relented and joined them. The following day, Jennie’s husband did not go trolling but rather went out to pick her seaweed and returned with three sacks full. Jennie continues with her story, telling that Klawock women, even though they had laughed at her, taught her how to make seaweed (kat’at’xi) with halibut-head juice, which acts like glue, and pack it in boxes.
Jennie’s memories are filled with these happy times in her carefree youth. She remembers that she bought a “handmade” short canoe from her brother, Tom. Her husband asked why she bought it when she did not know how to use it. She responded that “we young girls, if we can fish, people will come and buy it from me. Pretty soon, I learn how to do it. I have a lot of fun. I had no kids at that time.” Jennie’s first two sons did not survive. Her husband’s family believed that her sons did not live because she was married to a noble and she was equal to his status. When Jennie was pregnant with her third child, she went to Juneau to see a man whom Jennie called a “fortune teller” (shaman) to fix her up. She was given a flask and was instructed to put a drop of the medicine it contained wherever she stepped. The medicine promised that her children would live but she would have to give her first-born to the person who gave her the medicine. The child lived, and the medicine person kept asking for the child, but Jennie refused to give her up. Jennie and her husband, John James, had three daughters–Kathryn, Edith, and Edna. In 1920, her husband became ill, which Jennie describes as “funny sick.” His gums were swollen, he had a sore throat, he could not eat, and he stayed in the hospital in Haines for two months. One day Jennie heard him laughing in his sleep. When he awoke he called Jennie to his side and told her, “I got a good dream. Don’t worry if I go away to see my son.” He told Jennie that he was going away. He told her that in his dream their son had brought a sack and told him not to worry. The sack contained “green backs” (dollars). The dream was a prediction that Jennie would be able to take care of herself and her daughters with the money she would earn. Her husband died that year, confident that Jennie would be able to take care of herself.
After his death, she went to work in a laundry and a cannery. In 1922, Jennie married John Mark Thlunaut. John Mark’s mother and sister came to her and told her she should marry John. John had adopted the English surname of Mark. Jennie and John used Mark as their last name. After his death, Jennie dropped the name Mark and used the Tlingit name Thlunaut. They lived in Haines and moved into the Yeil Hit (Raven House) of the Lukwaax.adi Clan. They had a daughter who died in her crib. Jennie says the baby was frightened by a barking dog. Another daughter, Agnes, survived. Her second husband died in 1952. According to Tlingit law, her husband’s property, including the tribal house, would not be inherited by herself but rather would revert to someone in the clan who ascended to John’s position. If Jennie did not marry anyone else in her husband’s clan. she would have to move out of the Raven House. Jennie never remarried and she returned to Klukwan. She bought a small red house near the river where she could clean and smoke her fish.
In about 1973, she moved to a new house which was constructed by the Tlingit and Haida Housing Authority under the HUD program. Although the house was larger, it was inconvenient because it was on a hill away from the river. She would live in the new house throughout the winter but return each summer to her house by the river. She recently gave her small house to her grandson. Throughout her life, Jennie had been active in many church and civic affairs. She had been a faithful member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood and made some of the first ANS and ANB banners. She has been recognized for her life-long dedication to her home, family, people, and culture. Her participation in the traditional Tlingit ceremonies and potlaches has been as faithful and extensive. She has been given many names, and the following two stories tell of the love and regard her people have for her. Tlingit names are like titles and they are owned by particular clans. They also tell the stories of clan histories.
Jennie Gets the Name “Strong Coffee”
The name “Strong Coffee” was formally bestowed on Jennie when she was young, during a potlach in Hoonah. The name originated with John Benson and Henry Phillips. John and Henry returned to Klukwan after attending school at Sheldon Jackson. Jennie said, “They don’t know how to do hard work.” This statement is often made about students who have not had the opportunity and time to learn adequately the technical skills necessary for hunting and fishing.
Jennie recalls that the price of a river fish jumped from ten cents to twenty-five cents. Jennie said that “Hoonah People” and “Juneau People” had come to fish at Haines. They would put their nets in the river at Ten Mile (up the river) and drift down to Jones point, which is between seven and eight miles upriver from Haines. She said that their nets would be full of dog salmon even before they reached Jones Point. Fishing in October is cold. Jennie recounted that Henry and John had built a fire under a cottonwood tree and “put lots of coffee on.” The fishermen would gather at Henry and John’s big fire and drink coffee. It was not too long before people started calling Henry and John “Strong Coffee.” Jennie says that anytime she sees the big cottonwood tree by the side of the road as she passes by, “I think about it…good idea they build a fire.”
Later in the year Jennie’s husband’s uncle, Kudei Nahaa, invited the young people from Haines to attend a “big party.” According to Jennie, he had “put up lot’s of money” which would be distributed to the guests. Kudei Hahaa had approached Henry and told him, “It’s good for you that name, `Strong Coffee’, you better give it to your son’s wife.” (Because Henry had the same name as Jennie’s father-in-law). Jennie does not know how many thousands of dollars were “put up” in that potlach for her to receive the name “Strong Coffee” but she recalls with much pride: “I honor that name because my father-in-law gave it to me…that’s the way we get (I got) the name but I honor the name, costs lots of money.” In Tlingit custom only good daughter-in-laws receive gifts from their father-in-law. Jennie is “The Captain” This story involves a historical dispute between sailors who are remebered as being dutch, and the Tlingit. The silors killed some Tlingit people in Klukwan. They were pursued inthe war canoes by the Kaagwaantaan clan down to the Kaagwaantaan fort, Kax’ Noowu (Ground Hog bay), near Hoonah. The Kaagwaantaan shaa (women) now claim the rights to the silors uniforms. Jennie was approached to serve as the Captain. She claims she was selected because she was the oldest woman in her clan. She says she is too old now, so Daisy Phillips is next in line to succeed her. The First Blankets In 1908, Jennie’s mother died, and she left behind a chest containing materials necessary to make a blanket (yarn and such). The chest also contained a blanket that her mother had started, with “black and yellow on.” Her father gave the chest and its content to Jennie and she took it with her when she went to the mining camp with her first husband. She “worked steady up there in Porcupine from May to September” and “finished that blanket up there.” This was the first blanket she finished. Jennie’s definition of ‘steady’ means working continuously through the daylight hours of the long summer day and stopping only for a few moments to eat. Her husband’s sister, Noow Teiyi, married a man from Ketchikan. Jennie and her husband used to go there during the summer for the fishing, starting in 1910. In the first summer she was there she made a blanket while living “in a tent.” The white ladies would come in to watch her work on the blanket. She worked steady and completed it in two months. It was a “little one.” She traded it for a gold watch “for her old man.” This was the first blanket she made by herself from start to finish. The next blanket she made was also woven in Ketchikan during the summertime. Someone had ordered it and she sold it for fifty dollars. Her husband used the money to buy a sailing boat which they used to return to Klukwan at the summer’s end. A man from Klukwan, Kawushgaa, ordered an ANB flag so that he could give it as a present to the Sitka ANB Camp. Jennie wove the letters ANB and the year on a plain white background. She thinks it is in Sitka now but does not know who has it.
When she was first married, she made baskets, beadwork, moccasins, porcupine quill work, and blankets (fig 8). She also knitted, crocheted, and did embroidery. During this time, it was evident she had difficulties with male children. She had six boys in all with her first husband, but “they did not grow up.” After a while, her husband did not want her to work and make things; he told her to take care of the kids. When telling her to stop sewing with porcupine quills, he had said, “Don’t do that job. It’s too dangerous. The kids are going to get in to it, that sharp thing.” “That’s why I quit. It’s nice job, that.” So she did not make any more blankets or other items until after he died.
Working and Learning
After her first husband died, Jennie began to devote most of her time to weaving. She notes, “I started good. Steady.” Her aunt and other weavers would work only when “they got time to sit down.” They would usually take two years to finish a blanket. Jennie would work continuously until she finished a blanket. She recalls that her auntie was “surprised I finished two months.” She expresses gratitude towards her mother for her ability to work “steady” until her task is completed. She credits her mother for teaching her to make things properly, which includes taking initiative and working diligently until her task is completed. When Jennie spoke about her father taking items to sell in Skagway, she comments on the work of her mother that,”not many people do that job; just like that [today] they don’t care nothing. But only my momma makes something.”
Jennie believes, “if you are willing to do it you’ll learn it, but if you don’t care you can’t do it.” When asked about her teaching skills to others, she said she would like to teach, without charge, but “nobody likes to learn. I feel funny about it…Just the same, they always say too much work. They don’t like to do the spinning the yarn and the bark. I’m willing to do it–just my own people, not white people–but nobody like it. Funny. It’s big money.” Materials Click here to see map where Jennie gathered her Chilkat weaving materials Jennie spins the wool for the Chilkat blanket from mountain goat hair (fig11). In the fall time, the hunters would get the mountain goats, and she would buy the skins from them. Her most recent blankets are a combination of mountain goat and commercially made yarn. Four skins in all are needed for a blanket. The entire skin is not used., but only a strip along the back which is thicker. She uses two skins for the inner part of the blanket (the warp), and the outer yarn (the weft) takes two additional skins. She always prepared the wool and made the yarn herself by spinning it on her leg or hand (fig. 12). She says that the hardest is the inner part (warp) in which the goat wool and cedar bark are spun together. Jennie recalls at one time she almost purchased a spinning wheel to make her yarn, but no one knew how to use it. She cooked the bark herself, to prepare it for spinning. Cedar bark is not available locally in Klukwan. She would purchase the bark from her sister, Margaret Shatter, who lived in Hoonah. Margaret’s husband picked the cedar bark, and they would send it to Jennie in a box used to ship eggs. Each box held about fifteen pieces; the first box cost her twenty five dollars. Subsequently, the boxes were higher priced.
The Chilkat Blanket
Jennie related the following as her understanding of the origin of the Chilkat blanket: there was a Gaanaxteidi man who had two wives. One wife was a Tsimshian named Ha yu was tlaa (I was not able to hear her pronounce this name well, and Johnny Marks was not familiar with the name. It may be Tsimshian name, but it is also certain that if she were married to a Tlingit she would have been adopted and had a Tlingit name). This Tsimshian woman knew how to weave Chilkat blankets. Jennie said that the women of the Gaanaxteidi tribal house in Klukwan “rip it back [that is took a blanket apart]; the whole house people [all of the women in the Gaanaxteidi tribal house], they learn first, but they have different designs–Killerwhale, Eagle, and the Raven design. The Kaagwaantaan [women] used the Eagle, Killerwhale, Wolf, and Bear [designs].” Jennie said that the first blanket made by the Gaanaxteidi women, which Martha Willard has, is “too old” and that it has a “beaver on it.” The Gaanaxteidi shaa (women of the Gaanaxteidi clan) claim the Chilkat blanket. Jennie said, “My daddy pay my auntie [a Gaanaxteidi] to learn my momma [a Kaaagwaantaan], my momma’s sister, Saant’ass, my auntie, my momma’s auntie.” Jennie’s father has thus paid a Raven woman to teach the Eagle women. Jennie added, “Mrs. Benson, she’s a Raven, she a good blanket weaver. I married her son, she learned me.”
Johnny Marks related the following about the origin of the Chilkat blanket, saying that it was told him several times by his auntie Jessie: A young Tsimshian woman fell asleep and dreamed. In her dream, she learned how to do the Chilkat weave. When she awoke she said, “They’ve been teaching me something.” She told her family what she needed and then made leggings. Chief Daakw Tank from Chilkat, who was a Kaagwaantaan from the Bear House, heard about this weaving. His daughter was coming out of puberty seclusion and he wanted to commemorate it with something significant so that the people would remember it. He bought the leggings. His wife or daughter took them apart and studied them and from this made the Chilkat blanket. They practiced it for years before they perfected it. (The hardest to weave is a shirt). Johnny has the impression that this was a fairly recent occurance, five hundred to six hundred years ago, or maybe more.
The Tsimshians were the first group to start weaving ceremonial garments. They were known for making dancing aprons, leggings, and blankets. Through intermarriage, the Tlingit learned this craft. By the time of the incursions of European traders into the area in the late 1800’s, women of the Chilkat villages were regarded as the greatest producers of the largest of the ceremonial garments, the dancing blanket. The European traders coined the name “Chilkat blanket” in recognition of the weaving skills of the Chilkat women. Specific designs are woven into the blankets. These designs are rests of family or clan groups which serve as property markers and emblems of the group (plates 12, 13, 14). The crests are stylized animal figures which are symmetrical and are comprised of conventialized, colored design elements. Blankets are identified by the central figure, although the design may include additional elements or other figures which fill in the available spaces. More rare are blankets in which a single design is repeated in checkerboard fashion in the design space. The design is bounded by three bands of solid color: yellow, black, and white. The white band is narrower than the others and forms the outer edge; braids flow out from it on the bottom and two sides of the blanket. These braids produce evocative effects during dances, often flowing from side to side or shaking violently.
Carving and blanket designs were similiar in style. Weavers were provided with pattern boards fashioned and painted by a male artist (fig. 13). The desings on the board were transformed into wool, each portion being measured by a cord or a piece of cedar bark which would be marked with the thumbnail. Weavers could count the number of stitches in design elements so measured, in order to replicate the design elements with the conventional symmetry (fig. 14). Women made the yarn from mountain goat wool obtained from skins provided by male hunters. They spun the wool into yarn by hand on their thighs, (although Cheryl Samuels [1982:62] reports an alternatiove method involving the use of spindles and whorls.) Black and yellow colors were obtained from dyes made from hemlock bark, copper, and a specific lichen which, combined with urine, would produce the desired colors in the yarn. Women also gathered the inner bark from cedar trees which they prepared and spun together with the mountain goat yarn, making the stonger yarn used for the warp of the blanket.
The loom consisted of two upright posts to which a cross-piece was attached at the top. Another beam was situated just below the cross-piece to which the heading cord was attached by strings that were laced through holes placed in the beam. Several different stitches were used for various sections, including the heading, sidebraids, borders, and the design field. In addition to straight stitches, Chilkat weavers were capable of a variety of curvilinear shapes, including circles, ovals, and arcs used frequently in the design element.
Jennie made six Chilkat woven shirts in her life. There was only one lady in Klukwan who knew how to make shirts, but she did not want to teach Jennie how to make them, so Jennie tried it and figured out how to make shirts on her own. The shirt was made for Jack David is a spirit shirt. It has the name Naa Tuxgaayi. Austin Hammond has this shirt now (fig. 16). She also made a shirt for Tom Jimmie and for her second husband John Mark (Thlunaut). Her husband sold the shirt Jennie made for him while she was in the hospital. He sold it to someone aboard the missionary boat Sheldon Jackson, which at the time traveled to all southeastern communities. She felt so bad about it that she made another one just like it. Austin Hammond inherited this shirt as part of the Lukwaax.adi clan property. Jennie also indicates she made a shirt for Peter Dick of Angoon.
Cultural Signifigance of Chilkat Blankets
The ceremonial regalia of the Tlingit nobility includes the Chilkat blanket. They are worn at potlaches and other ceremonies. Weavers were often commissioned to make Chilkat blankets to commemorate events recorded in a clan’s oral traditions. Chilkat blankets were also given away in potlatches. Sometimes they were even cut up and the pieces were distributed among the guests. The blanket is used in dancing and is quite spectacular when it is swirling in motion as the dancers spin around. Today the blankets are the prize of musuem collections around the world. Chilkat blankets are important to the Tlingit both in life and death. Tlingit nobles were cremated in their ceremonial regalia. After the practice of burying the dead was adopted, the Tlingit would either wear their blankets or drape them over their burial sites. When they found that whites were taking them from the graveyard sites, the Tlingit began cutting the blankets into strips. They found that even this did not discourage the grave robbers, who continued to remove them.
Jennie made a number of Chilkat blankets for outright commercial sales to non-Tlingits. She was also commissioned by other Tlingits to make them Chilkat blankets and shirts. Jennie also made and gave away Chilkat blankets and shirts to her family members. Many of these Chilkat blankets and shirts remain the property of the clans. Clans also own rights to specific crests. Jennie is always careful to ensure that she weaves only those crests on the blankets and shirts to which the Tlingit recipients of the blankets or shirts have property rights. For instance, she would never weave a Raven crest for a Tlingit who is a member of the Eagle clan.
The following stories which Jennie related reveal the importance of the Chilkat blankets to the Tlingit. Jennie was invited to a potlach in Hoonah. During the potlach Jimmy Marks put money on the table (which would be distributed to validate her right to the name), called Jennie out and said, “Excuse me, sister, I am going to adopt you, I am going to give you my sister’s name, Alice Sutton’s name.” Jennie felt so honored to be given the name L’eex’eendu.oo, (Keeping the Broken Pieces), and to become the adopted sister of Jimmy Marks, who was the Chief of the Chookaneidi Clan. When Jimmie Marks became ill, Jennie was so worried that she would not have any money to give in his honor when he died. She recalls the distress she felt: “What we [I] going to do when he died. I got nothing…I got no money.” At that point she decided to make him a Chilkat shirt. When she finished the shirt she went down to Juneau to visit him. He had recently been released from the hospital. She approached him, “I just came to see you. I worry about [you]. I thinking about you all the time. I got no brother, that’s why I’m glad adopt me for your sister…what are we going to do when you go away? That’s why I make something for you.” Jennie recounted his response: “How do you know my thoughts? Thank you. That’s the way we think about it when we know we’re going to pass away. Somebody going to put the bear ear, you know, dancing, they use it, they put it on my head and then we died with it. Now this time you make that bear, thank you very much!” (Gangoosh [head band with bear ears] was put on the nobility just prior to their death). Jennie returned to Klukwan pleased that she had made something special for her adopted brother.
Jennie occasionally stayed with her daughter, Edna Land. Edna lived in Haines next to the Raven House in which Jennie had once lived with her husband John Mark (Thlunaut). Austin Hammond is now the recognized Chief of the Lukwaax.adi and lives in the Raven House. Jennie recalls that one day in July when she was staying with Edna, she looked out the window and was surprised to see her adopted brother and his wife going into Austin’s house. She recalled thinking, “Oh, my auntie coming and her husband too!” It was not too long before someone came to get her to go to Austin’s house, and soon the purpose of the visit was made evident. Jennie recalled her brother’s words to her: “We come back from Hoonah. I show the one you give me, the shirt. I show my family, and my family says they don’t want to bury with me.” Jimmie explained that his family wanted to keep the shirt rather than having it buried with him. His family felt that the shirt would remind them of both Jimmy and Jennie. Jimmy told Jennie the purpose of his visit was to explain his family’s wishes to her. Jennie simply replied, “Thank you.” After his death, Jennie went to Hoonah to participate in his potlach. The evening before the big potlach, all his personal possessions, “his tools, everything” were given to members of his clan. Jennie was approached by one of her adopted brother’s clan members, “Sister,your brother was talking about you lots, about the blanket shirt. It costs too much money…He feels bad he go away before you. He [was] talking about he was going to buy your casket when he go away. Now this time he go ahead of you. That’s why he told me to give you this money.” Jennie was handed an envelope which she opened and found one thousand dollars. The clan member continued, “your brother was talking about it, when you go away you buy some casket.” Jennie explained that this is why her family and friends need not worry, “I’m all right. Everything is okay.” Jennie has put the money she received from her brother in the bank to pay for her coffin when “she goes away too.” The Chilkat Bear shirt which Jennie had made for her adopted brother, Jimmy Marks, became part of the Chookaneidi Clan property. Willie Marks, who succeeded his brother Jimmy, inherited the shirt. Jennie’s neice, Mary Johnson, who is also Chookaneidi, became the caretaker of the clan’s possessions.
Jennie points out that she is often given money by those who have her Chilkaat blankets or shirts. She tells that once she was at a potlach and a man came and embraced her, he said, “I’m glad I got it your job. Thank you very much.” He pressed fifty dollars into Jennie’s hand and said, “That’s my thanks; don’t say no.” She also tells that Willie Marks would give her twenty dollars of fifty dollars just to go the restaurant.
Jimmy Martin’s Blanket
Jimmy Martin had ordered a Chilkat blanket from Jennie. He told her he wanted to be buried with it because he had been given the name Yaakwaan, which is the name of a noble, a “big name.” Before Jimmy was able to get the blanket from Jennie, he drowned. As soon as she learned of his death she went to his home and told his son. “ You daddy order some blanket. He wants to use it when he died. He put on his casket in the graveyard. I got it one at home. He order that, that’s why I tell you.” Jennie returned home, packed the blanket, and mailed it to his family. Jennie later received a picture of the blanket which had been cut into four pieces. The blanket pieces had been attached to an anchor and thrown into the water where Jimmy Martin was presumed drowned. Jennie said, “That’s all right, that’s my brother.”
Jimmy was a member of the Kaagwaantaan Clan, which is also the clan to which Jennie belongs. Jennie Thlunaut has continued to make Chilkat blankets and shirts up until a few years ago when her eyesight failed. Many of blankets and shirts are still seen and used in the traditional potlaches. Some remain the property of clans and others are sold by the Tlingits who had originally ordered them from Jennie. Jennie also indicates that some of the blankets she made were made for commercial sale to non-Tlingits.
Jennie is best known for her Chilkat blanket weaving. However, she is an accomplished spruce root basket weaver as well (plate 11). She made baskets primarily for commercial sale sometimes for gifts. In addition, Jennie designed and sewed her own beadwork. She continued even to her last days to sew moccasins. She had made beaded vests for her family members.
Jennie Thlunaut was ninety-two years old (March 1984). Jennie had said she feels strong in her mind, but her body will not do what she wants it to. At one of her low points, when her eyes began to fail. she was so disheartened that she said she might as well have her hands cut off since she could no longer work. The depression was only momentary since she did continue to work. She remained active and alert. (Until her death in 1986), she continued to travel, visiting friends and relatives in the northern Tlingit communities. She never missed participating in a potlatch or attending Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood conventions. She was a devout Christian and a devoted mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She was admired and loved by all.
The following is a list of the blankets and shirts Jennie recalls making. The listed amount represents the price she received or the money she received during a potlatch.
- 1. John Mark (Thlunaut), Haines She made a shirt for her husband who sold it to someone who worked on the Sheldon Jackson vessel.
- 2. John Mark (Thlunaut), Haines She made a duplicate shirt after he sold the first one. Austin Hammond, who succeeded John Marks, inherited this shirt.
- 3. Jack David, Haines Spirit Naa Tuxgaayi. Austin Hammond also inherited this shirt. $300.00
- 4. Peter Dick, Angoon $300.00
- 5. Tom Jimmie, Haines $400.00
- 6. Jimmie Marks, Hoonah Gift to Jimmy, who had adopted Jennie. Shirt woven with bear crest.
- 1. First blanket $50.00
- 2. Second blanket made in Ketchikan ca. 1910, traded for a gold watch.
- 3. Third blanket made in Ketchikan ca. 1910, sold for a sailing boat.
- 4. Wrangell $50.00
- 5. Juneau $50.00
- 6. Sitka–Frog design $50.00
- 7. Mrs. Charles Benson, Sitka $300.00
- 8. Annie Sauaton, Angoon $300.00
- 9. Mr. Johnson, Angoon $300.00
- 10. John Smith, Hoonah $300.00
- 11. Joseph Pratt, Hoonah $300.00
- 12. Mrs. Jimmy Martin $300.00
- 13. Mrs. Hakkinen, Haines $300.00
- 14. Mrs. Schnable, Haines $300.00
- 15. Alaska Native Arts and Craft Cache, Juneau $300.00
- 16. Alaska Native Arts and Craft Cache, Juneau $300.00
- 17. Alaska Native Arts and Craft Cache, Juneau $300.00
- 18. Alaska Native Arts and Cache Cooperative, Juneau $1000.00
- 19. Carl Heinmiller, Haines $500.00
- 20. Jenny Marks, Juneau Lukwaax.adi Clan (wife of Jimmie Marks) $600.00
- 21. Jenny Marks, Juneau $600.00
- 22. K’alaxeitl (Sam Hopkins) $600.00
- 23. K’alaxeitl (Sam Hopkins) $600.00
- 24. Joe White, Hoonah $600.00
- 25. Joe White, Hoonah Chief of the Shangukeidi. Desigh with Gagaan Yatx’i (Children of the Sun). Brought out at the dedication of the new Shangukeidi tribal house in Klukwan in 1971, named Kawdliyaayi Hit X’oow. $600.00
- 26. Mary Hamilton, Fairbanks, $1000.00
- 27. Rosita Worl, Shangukeidi, Anchorage. Jennie and John Mark Thlunaut’s grandaughter. Eagle crest (fig. 22) $2000.00
- 28. Dan Katzeek’s daughter in Skagway. Design: Kutkataa Ch’aak’ (nesting eagle) This design was designed by Johnnie Marks. $10,000.00
- 29. Josephine Winders. Wolf.
- 30. Agnes Bellinger, Juneau. Wolf
- 31. Jimmie Martin. Kaagwaantaan. Chilkat blanket put into water after he drowned.
- 32. Johnny Marks. Likwaax.adi Chookaneidi Yaidi. Jennie gave this to him as a gift. Design: “Two-door house” (formerly named Raven House)
- 33. Sheldon Jackson Museum. Small Chilkat blanket with a frog emerging from its winter hibernation (plate 12). Jennie gave this to pay for one of her daughter’s tuition at Sheldon Jackson. Les Yaw donated it to the museum two years ago.
Goldschmidt, Walter R., and Theodore H. Haas. 1946. Possessory Rights of the Natives of Southeast Alaska. A Report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. “N.p.” Krause, Aurel. 1956. The Tlingit Indians. “Translated by Erna Gunther. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Oberg, Kalervo. 1973. The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. The American Ethnological Society Monograph No. 55. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Samuels, Cheryl. 1982. The Chilkat Dancing Blanket. Seattle: Pacific Search Press. Thlunaut, Jennie. 1983. Taped interviews and transcripts with Rosita Worl and Charles Smythe with the assistance of Johnny Marks. “The Artists Behind the Work”: Oral History Program, Alaska Polar Regions Collections, RasmusonLibrary, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
We would like to acknolwedge the graciousness and iwllingness of Jennie thlunaut to work with us. We realize we have only been able to capture some of the highlights of her life. Although she is remarkably strong for her years, she was only able to work with us for short periods during the limited time we had with her. We are also expecially granteful to John Marks who assisted us in the interviews and subsequently clarified many issues for us. Special thanks to Austin Hammond who took good care of us when we stayed in Yeil Hit.