Apprenticeship With Jennie


I knew where I really wanted to live… Haines, Alaska!

In January 1985, I received a call from Jan Steinbright, Executive Director at the Institute of Alaska Native Arts, inviting me to participate in a Chilkat weaving workshop for two weeks beginning at the end of February 1985 in Haines, Alaska, a sleepy little town at the mouth of the Chilkat River, about 80 miles north of Juneau on the Alaskan Ferry route. Jan knew that two years prior, I had been introduced to a week-long class in Chilkat weaving taught by Cherl Samuel. What she didn’t know was that I had no interest in taking up Chilkat weaving again. I felt I was a lousy weaver and that it was too hard. Yet, she also didn’t know that I loved the landscape of HainesI didn’t have to think twice.  Of course I’d go… anything to spend a two week in Haines!

Jan explained that the workshop would be led by the last of the traditional Chilkat weavers, a woman from Klukwan, the small Native village just north of Haines.  I vaguely recognized her name: Jennie Thlunaut.  She was 95 years old and this would be the first time she had taught a Chilkat weaving to two dozen weavers and basketmakers. Traditionally, Chilkat weaving was taught to only your relatives, by blood or marriage. This class may have had a few of her relatives, yet she did not know most of the women who were all from Southeast Alaska. This was a big step for Jennie to step outside of traditional boundaries.

I had woven a small Chilkat project at a previous workshop led by Canadian weaver Cheryl Samuels, but other than that, I knew very little about Chilkat weaving.  However, I would be in good company, because most of the other participants at the workshop didn’t know much about Chilkat weaving either.  The art had nearly vanished.  The techniques had been passed down to only a very few of the next generation, and all the old weavers had passed on.  All, that is, except Jennie.

Jennie Thlunaut was truly the grand master of Chilkat weaving (although she would not ever say that about herself; in fact, she laughed at the statement.)  Not only was she the last Chilkat weaver left in the Chilkat Valley, but she was by far the most prolific of all the old weavers.  She had created some 50 Chilkat blankets during her lifetime, in addition to over 6 Chilkat tunics and numerous smaller weavings.  (To put this number in perspective, a typical weaver spends one year, full-time, to create a Chilkat blanket.  Jennie had produced almost 60 major pieces in addition to raising a family, living her subsistence life-style, and holding a full-time job!)

At the workshop, my first task was to design a pattern for my weaving.  I decided on a version of the logo I’d developed for my landscaping company; a Northwest Coast-style hand holding a flower.  When I showed the design to Jennie, she barked at me the way old Tlingit women are prone to do: “No human hands!  You don’t put human hands in Chilkat weaving!”  I was confused and disappointed; I really liked my design.  But there was no way around it… Jennie was adamant about human hands not being in Chilkat weaving. One day, after a week of me bugging her about letting me put human hands in my weaving, she yelled at me in front of the entire class: “….NO HUMAN HANDS! No human hands……three fingers and a thumb is okay, but not four fingers and a thumb! No human hands, no human hands!!!” Embarrassed,  I finally gave in because obviously for whatever reasons she felt strongly about no human hands in Chilkat weaving, so I modified the design into a raven’s claw, and Jennie approved the design.

During the following week, we all struggled with our weavings while Jennie amazed us with her speed at weaving… her fingers seemed to fly through the warp. When the last day of the workshop rolled around,  I was 1/2 done with my project and totally fascinated by this ancient woman with the amazing fingers.  I presented Jennie with a floral dress I’d sewn for her there at the workshop, and she wore it at our farewell dinner.

Back home in Juneau, I was very excited about Chilkat weaving.  I finished the other half of the raven’s claw piece and made myself a leather backpack with the new weaving as the flap.  I made a decision that I would ask Jennie if she would take me on as an apprentice, and show me all the techniques that hadn’t been touched on during the Haines workshop.   I journeyed to Klukwan and was escorted to Jennie’s two-room house on the Chilkat River by Jennie’s granddaughter.  (Jennie also owned a larger “Native Housing” house up the hill, but this smaller house was “her summer house” on the river)  I had hand-spun 100 yards of Chilkat warp yarn in preparation for the trip; I wanted to impress Jennie with how serious I was about learning from her.   I was terribly unsure of myself as we entered Jennie’s house.

Her granddaughter laughed at how nervous and shy I was acting.  “Just ASK her, Clarissa…she ain’t going to bite you!” she laughed, and pushed me towards Jennie.  I stood there like a numbskull, stuttering through my sentence, “Uh, uh… Jennie?  I want to learn how to weave… and I would… uh… be honored if you would… uh… teach me…”  Jennie looked at me, didn’t say a word; she may have grunted a little grunt… but then she suddenly looked past me and exclaimed: “Who did this?”  She walked towards my Chilkat backpack on the floor next to her front door.  I was too scared to answer as she picked up the backpack; I was afraid she’d be disappointed.  “Ah…that’s pretty good,” she said.  “But you see here, you just fix these teeth with that black magic marker…”  The “teeth” she was talking about were the places where the white warp showed through the black weft yarns, due to my lack of experience.  I was shocked.  Black magic marker on my new weaving?  There was no way I was going to “cheat” like that.  I must have made a face, because Jennie’s granddaughter broke into a fit of laughter.

Jennie never said anything about whether or not she would take me as an apprentice that day, she did not answer a yes or no, and I didn’t push the subject.  I figured I had asked the question, now it was up to her to decide.  If I didn’t suit her, it was her right to say “no.”  I went back to Juneau and carried on with my life.     Then, out of the blue, almost a year after my trip to Klukwan, I got a phone call from Jennie’s daughter, Agnes Bellinger, who lived in Juneau.  “Clarissa, my mother is coming to town tomorrow.  She wants to teach you to weave.  Can you do it?  I know this is short notice and all… but things have been happening fast…what do you think?”  I told her I’d have to talk it over with my husband; I’d have to shuffle a bunch of my responsibilities onto him; taking care of the kids, the household, my landscaping company, etc.  Hudson said to go for it, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that I was crazy to not jump for it right now and how could I have doubts! He said he would take care of everything. (Thinking back upon his offer of support, I know I would not have learned Chilkat weaving from Jennie).  I called Agnes back; “I’ll do it!”

I began my apprenticeship on a fine spring day, the first week in April 1986.  I had prepared for this day long before it happened.  I had my three balls of warp, all my weft yarns and a hand-crafted, mid-sized weaving loom; I even had a dance leggings pattern all drawn up.  I had told myself that if I were meant to be a Chilkat weaver, then Jennie would teach me… there would be no one else.     Every weekday for the next six weeks, I met with Jennie in Agnes’s livingroom.  We hung the yarns for two matching dance leggings from my loom, side by side.  Jennie demonstrated and wove on one legging while I stumbled and wove on the other.  She didn’t say much; she seemed to expect me to learn through my eyes.  If I didn’t pick up on what she was showing me, she’d say sharply, “Watch me!”  That was her favorite phrase, it seemed: “Watch me!”  Most of the time, we’d work for hours without either of us saying anything.  Then she would suddenly say something like, “Be good to your husband!”   (I’d think, “What does she know about my relationship with my husband?  Of course I’m good to him!”)  Or she would say, “Take time to eat!”  She said these things with a firm urgency.  In my mind, a part of me felt like it had to defend itself: “Of course, I will take time to eat… little does she know I can eat like a horse…”  It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand and experience her advice and wisdom.

Slowly, the two leggings grew on the loom.  Sometimes Jennie would weave on my piece, to catch me up with hers.  She was so much faster than I was, and watch as I might, I just could not figure out what exactly she was doing with her hands that made the weaving look so effortless.     At the end of 6 weeks, the two weavings were complete, and we cut them down off the loom.  Suddenly, Jennie grabbed me by the shoulders and said to me, “You are it! Do you hear? You are it!”   At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant.  She continued, “….Now I can go home and see my mamma and my daddy… and my aunties… I’m finished….my work is finished!”  She cupped her hands over her mouth as she said this.  I realized that she was saying good-bye, that her time would be over soon.  I felt that my training had just begun… I told her to wait on a moment, I was looking forward to learning more from her, to our next project together; I would go to Klukwan and learn some more from her.  She just looked at me with her hands cupped over her mouth.     In the very last moment when Jennie and I parted, and I was just about to close the door, suddenly I remembered something that I wanted to say to Jennie; with my hand still holding the door knob, I opened the door, to a scene I shall not ever forget: Jennie was sitting on the couch alone, with her head in her hands, sobbing.  Perplexed, I hesitated; I didn’t know what to do, but I felt that I couldn’t disturb her. She did not hear or see me re-open the door, so I closed the door quietly and walked away.  I had no idea what journey I had begun.   I never saw her again.  She died two months later.


When I heard of Jennie’s death, I felt abandoned, lost, afraid. I felt that my apprenticeship was not yet complete; I had so much more to learn; how could she leave now!? After Jennie’s memorial service , Agnes explained to me what her mother had meant when she had taken me by the shoulders and said, “You are it!”  Agnes told me Jennie’s only other apprentice, who had woven a piece from start to finish with her, had been Jennie’s own daughter — but the daughter had died many years ago.  So it seemed that I was now the primary bearer of Jennie’s knowledge, even though I had spent only six weeks working beside her – Quoting Jennie: “You are”it!”     Yet I had woven only two small weavings prior to the leggings with Jennie.  I felt totally incompetent to be Jennie’s messenger, to pass on what I had learned.  On top of that, I was dealing with the grief.  I couldn’t even look at my loom without breaking down.

A year later after Jennie passed away, I moved my family to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I had finally escaped from Juneau, and I loved being in Santa Fe, in the warm, red-earth country.  I enrolled at the Institute of American Indian Art, specializing in Fabric Design and Metalsmithing.  But I did no Chilkat weaving at all.   After two years, my then  husband told me he wanted to return to Juneau; he was getting very depressed living in Santa Fe.  I dreaded the thought of returning to Juneau.  What good could ever come of returning to that dreary place? I wondered.  It rained too much, my social life was chaotic there, it was too dark in the winters. But, for my husband’s sake, I began packing and, a few months later, we were back in Juneau — in July 1989.

I found my spirits starting to sink just a few weeks after returning.  I asked myself why I even returned… realizing that I had returned for all the other members of my family who wanted to return, except myself.  I knew that there had to be something to tide me over, help me through living there, until I could return to the Southwest.  I must be in Juneau for some reason!  I asked what that thing would be, that would help me through my duration there.  A voice answered me, loud and clear: “Chilkat weaving!”     I laughed.  Ha!  What a joke!  I hadn’t been able to weave a stitch since Jennie’s passing and that was over three years ago.   How could this possibly be the thing that would tide me over until my return to the Southwest?  I scoffed at the voice, at the answer, and went to bed.  It was midnight.     Exactly eight hours later, the phone rang.  It was Elizabeth Hackinnen, owner of the Sheldon Museum in Haines.

Apparently, Jennie had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, just days before her passing (in July 1986), and it had been Jennie’s intention to use the funds to teach her granddaughters Chilkat weaving.  The money had been sitting there for three years.  Then one of the granddaughters had heard of my return to Juneau, and thought that I might be willing to teach them, since I had studied with Jennie just before her passing.  When Elizabeth told me this, just eight hours after my request to know what I was meant to do in Juneau, the synchronicity was so overwhelming that I burst into tears.  My question had been answered, squarely and solidly.  I had no doubt about teaching Jennie’s granddaughters: the answer was yes!    That night I sat at the loom for the first time in over three years, planning to weave a copy of the project that I would later teach to Jennie’s granddaughters.  The warp hung loose before me.  I was filled with anxiety.  How would I ever remember all that Jennie had taught me?  How would I teach her amazing fingering technique, when I had never really learned it myself? I panicked.

I called Agnes for advice and assistance. In her compassionate sense of humor, Agnes replied: “Clarissa, I cannot help you, I don’t know how to weave…but, you can always call on my mother like she suggested. And maybe she will come to you in a dream….”     After the phone call to Agnes, with nervous hesitation, I began to weave.   Silently, I called to Jennie to help me.  I told Jennie that if there was ever a time I needed her, that this was “it!” I told her I was chosen to teach her granddaughters and I had to know her fingering. The whole time I made my request to Jennie, my fingers fumbled through the warp. Then… if by magic, my fingers began to move through the warp as they had never done before, and I cried out in surprise.  All by themselves, my hands were doing Jennie’s fingering!

The rest, as they say, is history…!