SEALASKA HERITAGE PUBLISHES BIOGRAPHY ON PROLIFIC CHILKAT WEAVER
Book offers first profile of the Klukwan artist
July 5, 2022
Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has published the first-ever biography of the prolific Klukwan artist Clara Newman Benson (Deinḵul.át), who lived from 1856 to 1935 and was a significant Chilkat weaver of her day.
The book, A Life Painted in Yarn: A Biography of Tlingit Chilkat Weaver Clara Newman Benson, establishes her as a major weaver who lived two generations before the famed Chilkat weaver Jennie Thlunaut (Shax’saani Kéek’), who passed away at age 98 in 1986.
Chilkat weavers as a group have not been well documented by scholars, and Thlunaut is the only Chilkat weaver prior to this publication with a biography, wrote author Zachary Jones, Ph.D.
“My goals with the book were to establish Clara Benson’s place in Alaska’s history and art history and to contribute to the body of scholarship on historic Alaskan women,” wrote Jones, an archivist, historian and anthropologist.
Benson, who was of an aanyádi (high-class or aristocratic) family of the G̱aanax̱teidí clan, Yéil Hít (Raven House) of Klukwan, was known for weaving naaxein k’oodás’ (Chilkat tunics) and naaxein (Chilkat robes).
“Based on all the evidence about Benson’s labors as a tunic maker, she was one of the most prolific and sought-after weavers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” he wrote.
Recorded information on women born in the 1850s and who lived in Alaskan villages is not readily available, wrote SHI President Rosita Worl in the book’s foreword. However, the author has managed to piece together information from multiple obscure sources about her adult life and also give us a glimpse into Tlingit culture.
“More often, women are overlooked as artists and rarely are their lives documented in the way that Dr. Jones has attempted to do,” Worl wrote.
The book was published through SHI’s Box of Knowledge series, which was founded to encourage scholarship on Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures; to disseminate papers and research more widely; and to circulate work that has not been published. People interested in publishing through the series should contact SHI’s Senior Ethnologist Chuck Smythe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907.586.9282.
About Chilkat Weaving
Chilkat weaving is one of the most complex weaving techniques in the world, and it is unique to Northwest Coast cultures. Chilkat weavings, which function as clan at.óowu or ceremonial objects within the Native community, are distinct from other weaving forms in that curvilinear shapes such as ovoids are woven into the pieces. The curved shapes are difficult and very time-consuming to execute, and a single Chilkat robe can take a skilled weaver a year or longer to complete. Traditionally, mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark were used. The process of harvesting the goat and bark and then processing these materials was also complex and laborious. In recent years, Chilkat weaving was considered to be an endangered art practice. A few Native artists mastered the craft and are now teaching it to others, giving hope this ancient practice will survive.
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.
Captions: Clara Benson at her weaving loom in Klukwan in the 1890s, courtesy of the Alaska State Archives & Alaska State Library, Historical Collections. Cover of “A Life Painted in Yarn: A Biography of Tlingit Chilkat Weaver Clara Newman Benson” showing Xóots Naaxein K’oodás’ currently at the Portland Art Museum woven by Benson. Note: For coverage of this story, news outlets are permitted to use these photos, including the image of Clara Benson, for which the state archives has extended permission to news outlets. For high-resolution versions, contact email@example.com.