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Weaving the Future: A New Commission By William White

Tsamiianbaan–William White is a master weaver of the Tsimshian Nation. Visiting from his home in Prince Rupert in February 2022, he was an artist-in-residence at MOA, where he started on his new commission to weave a Chilkat dance apron and pair of leggings.

William White shows his weaving in progress at MOA for Kids Takeover UBC. Photo by Sarah Race.

This commission represents an extraordinary opportunity to support the creation of significant new work by one of today’s foremost contemporary First Nations weavers, and to do so with the intention that the items will not only be displayed to museum visitors as “art” but will also regularly be activated, culturally and spiritually, as ceremonial regalia. Funded by the Michael O’Brian Strategic Acquisitions Fund, the apron and leggings will accompany the Chilkat weaving, or gwiis halayt, that William made as an earlier MOA commission in 2004: a robe now often on display, whether in MOA’s Textile Research Room, or at potlatch ceremonies where it is brought to life by the dancers who wear it. As William explains, “When Marco Isaac danced in this robe for his brother Trevor Isaac’s potlatch in Alert Bay in 2018, you could see the rhythm and the flow of all the Chilkat regalia. You could see the fringe move to the beat of the singers—the fringe was wrapping around Marco. In the Tsimshian language this is what gwiis halayt means: “The spirit wrapped around you.”*

William White weaving at MOA. Photo by Sarah Race.

One of the most transformative developments in MOA’s approach to collections care and access has been the priority it has given over the past two decades to activating the First Nations collection through community use. The teaching and learning that can grow from such access among Indigenous community members is vital as MOA strives to support hands-on study of the collections for originating communities and to work in collaboration with those communities toward the critical goal of reconnecting families with their belongings.

Sala gamiilga gaax ganou: The Raven Dances with Frogs is the name of the robe that William completed for MOA in 2004. At his request, it has been danced many times at each of numerous potlatch ceremonies in Alert Bay since 2011. Most often this smaller-sized robe is worn by youths or small adults, who are sometimes also outfitted with a dance apron and leggings woven in the same Chilkat technique. There are few such aprons and legging sets available, however, and these have to be borrowed from other owners. The newly commissioned apron and leggings will help to fill this need, and like the robe, will represent the resurgence of historical Chilkat weaving techniques through contemporary practice.

Marco Isaac, age 13, performs as the Hoylikalał, or Healing Dancer, during a potlatch ceremony in the Bighouse at ’Yalis (Alert Bay, BC). Marco is wearing—and activating through ceremony—a child’s Chilkat robe woven for MOA by William White (Tsimshian) in 2004. Photo by Sharon Grainger.

Chilkat weaving is characterized by highly conventionalized designs, which weavers create on a single-beam loom through a repertoire of eft-twining and braiding techniques, using mountain-goat wool and/or sheep wool. William is hand-weaving the apron and leggings with a sheep-wool weft and with warp elements spun of cedar bark and sheep wool; both items will also feature hide fringes typical of such dance regalia. The commissioned apron and leggings by William will be the first contemporary pieces of this kind in MOA’s collection, and they represent his years of study, practice, and mentorship:

“I have woven 40 aprons in my life so far: cedar bark; combination cedar bark and northern geometric (Raven’s Tail); northern geometric (Raven’s Tail); combination Chilkat and Raven’s Tail; and full-on Chilkat
aprons. This is quite an accomplishment, because as I was teaching and weaving these aprons, my students could learn the rhythm of the finger movements. It has been a successful teaching method. Not
all the Chilkat regalia in communities is available to everyone. Having an apron with matching leggings related to the design of the robe will be very special indeed. I have never seen an apron and leggings being used that were related to any robe, that I know of—that have a connection to the story or history in the design elements. The Tsimshian were famous for making aprons and leggings for that specific reason.”

Known as gwiis halayt among the Tsimshian and Nisga’a peoples of the Pacific Northwest, and as naaxiin (“the fringe about the body”) among the Haida and Tlingit, it is said that Chilkat weaving began in the hands of Gonakadet’s wife, who wove the first of these ceremonial blankets for her husband, the
undersea Chief of Wealth. It is also understood that, historically, this style of weaving was first practised among the Tsimshian, on the banks of the Skeena River. Certain women of high rank learned to weave Chilkat robes; they worked with male artists to plan compositional details. By the early 1800s, there were also expert practitioners among other peoples of the northern Northwest Coast—including women of the Chilkat Tlingit, who became best known for the unique robes in the following century, keeping the tradition alive during the decades when Indigenous ceremony was outlawed and suppressed, and whose
name is now associated with this distinctive form of regalia.

A visitor admires William’s White work in progress. Photo by Sarah Race.

Today, a growing number of contemporary Indigenous weavers are committed to learning and bringing renewed vitality to its complex forms and techniques. Because the techniques have traditionally been reserved for women, William sought and received supernatural permission to learn this art, and is dedicated to help teach and strengthen the practice. William will be completing the new apron and leggings this summer. Reflecting on his progress to date, he recently shared something of his experience:

“I have been working on this apron for months now and I am just about finished. There have been some important things that have occurred during the process of weaving it. I seem to have taken another step up in my understanding of the process: that is to say, I think the universe has changed inside of me. What I mean is, my understanding and spiritual self has somehow changed. I feel completely at ease sitting at my loom. I am at peace with the energy that surrounds the weaving. I feel as if I don’t have to think about the design elements—like they are just in me, and my fingers are doing all the work, not my mind. It’s a strange feeling, but one that I welcome into my heart. We call this “halayt” in my language. The weaving itself is called gwiis halayt, which means the spirit wrapped around you. This is what has happened during the process of weaving this apron.”

When the newly created apron and leggings come to MOA, they will help to ensure that the museum is not a place where objects stop moving. Over time and through connection with community and the wider public, each piece will build its own history of use and carry forward a continuum of cultural knowledge and practice.

*Watch the video of Marco Isaac dancing for his brother Trevor Isaac’s potlatch in Alert Bay in 2018