Dances with Wools

Dancers in ravenstail robes   
 Tsimshian dancers spread their ravenstail "wings"

My family had an extra joyful experience this Thanksgiving weekend, thanks to some very special weavers and dancers. We visited the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Washington, to see the Weaving Heritage exhibit, and we had the great good fortune to see the Northwest troupe Tsimshian Haayuuk (“Tsimshian spirit”) dancing in Ravenstail regalia woven by local weaver John Beard. Surrounded by a rapt audience, members of the Tsimshian Nation performed dances to bid visitors welcome, to celebrate the spirits of Eagle, Coyote, and Killer Whale, and to teach lessons that must be passed down the generations. The children were entranced as Mouse Woman warned against the dangers of an evil spirit whose fantastic mask evoked a giant mosquito. As the dancers in their lovely ravenstail robes and Chilkat blankets wove in and out, eagle down danced in the air. (They blow it in the air to welcome you, and when it touches you, it brings good luck.), For those magic moments, we all shared in the Tsimshian spirit.


After the performance, the dancers recognized John Beard for his contribution to preserving their cultural heritage. As with many textiles represented in the Burke Exhibit, the Ravenstail tradition was nearly lost, but is now being preserved through the efforts of Northwest native peoples and of non-native weavers such as Cheryl Samuel and John Beard. Painstaking and beautiful, every Ravenstail weaving has meaning and purpose. Janice Lonergan, a Tsimshian Haayuuk member, told me how she and other Tsimshian weavers are learning Ravenstail weaving to bring the tradition back to the Tsimshian people, and how they are now spinning some of the wool for the blankets.


  Coast Salish blanket from the Burke Museum collection

The Mourning Star, a Coast Salish-style robe by

Debra and Robyn Sparrow, is also featured in the

Weaving Heritage exhibit

If you can possibly visit Seattle this winter, don’t miss the Weaving Heritage exhibit. Beautifully mounted and curated, it is a visual, intellectual, and spiritual delight, illustrating the cultural significance of traditional cloth from around the Pacific Rim, the role of weavers in their communities, the threats to traditional textile arts, and efforts to preserve them. And as you sit with your loom this winter, be it backstrap, standing, floor loom or whatever, celebrate yourself for the time and care you bring to your weaving. By the simple act of making cloth by hand, you are preserving tradition. Long may you weave.


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