A Journey to What Matters Invitational Grant

Yaaw Koo.eex’ Cedar Weaving & Robe Making

Native Movement - Fiscal Sponsor for Herring Protectors
Story by Chandler O'Connell
robe making
Robe Making Photo by Rose Demmert
Cedar Rose Making Juneau_photo by Kaa Yahaayi Shkalneegi Muriel Reid

Our purpose for this project was to support the intergenerational transfer of knowledge of Alaska Native artistic and cultural practices, in particular for Indigenous people who have not had opportunities to learn due to colonization, while simultaneously supporting the artists and culture bearers who so generously share their skills and uplift their community. We accomplished this through the collective creation of regalia and gifts for the 2023 Yaaw Koo.eex’.

Through this project we hosted over 20 regular community gatherings at Sitka’s Alaska Native Brotherhood hall in Winter and Spring 2023, creating Indigenous centered spaces for Indigenous people and allies of all backgrounds to come together to share traditional foods, to learn the Alaska Native Arts of cedar weaving and robe making from Alaska Native Artists, and prepare for the 2023 Yaaw Koo.eex’. By providing materials and a comfortable, inclusive, consistent space to connect with teachers, we lowered barriers for people to access these important cultural and artistic practices. We met Wednesday and Sunday nights. Our first night we had over 75 people in attendance, and most nights we saw at least 50, with ages ranging from toddlers to elders.

Community leader Rose Demmert hosted the space, helping to organize and support instructors, and providing nourishing dinners featuring local fish and meat, dishes that were always supplemented by potluck dishes from the community. Rose also joined on as an artist, leading guests in beading and making felt headbands and pins. Rose was critical to completing community outreach through social media, PSAs, and most importantly, word of mouth prioritizing Indigenous families, friends and social networks in Sitka.

Basket Weaving photo by Rose DemmertMaster weaver Ed Peele taught community members to weave cedar baskets and headbands. Over 70 baskets were woven and then distributed as fire dishes at the Koo.eex’. It was wonderful to see Ed share his skills and calm, supportive teaching style with folks who came back again and again.

Artists Rachel Moreno and Jamie Bradley mentored two Indigenous women in creating their own regalia. Their robes incorporated the Yaaw design gifted to the Herring Protectors by artist Charlie Skulka Jr. and became part of the larger “school” of Kax̲átjaasháa X’óow (Herring Lady Robes) that had been created in years prior. Jamie Bradley also utilized and shared her skills with the gift night participants through the creation of two new robes that were dedicated as Kiks.adí at.oow at the Yaaw Koo.eex’. The first was a “Mother Herring Robe” which represented the community’s collective responsibility to keep women and children safe. The robe was presented to Vicki D’Amico, who was also given the name Yaaw Tlaa at the Koo.eex’ to honor her decades of work protecting hundreds of women and children from violence. This robe depicted herring swimming in a ball as they do when they are threatened to protect themselves – just as our community is responsible for protecting one another. The second was a children’s dance robe that will connect children with culture and the herring for generations to come.

Ralph Brady led drum making. He and his students made over 100 deer hide drums that were painted with herring designs and accompanied by deer hide drumsticks. The drums were danced out at the Koo.eex’ and given as gifts. Rachel Moreno also contributed time to jewelry making instruction, helping students make copper tinaas that were also gifted at the Koo.eex’. We also supported community gift making for the Yaaw Koo.eex’ in Deishu and Auke Kwan Territory, with Indigenous artist instructors guiding primarily Indigenous community members in making cedar roses, pins, beaded feathers and other projects. Individual artists organically began using the community gift making events to come and work on their own projects in community, from carving to beading to robe making. The space helped broadly expose people to Alaska Native artistic and cultural practices and forged new or strengthened intergenerational relationships.

Katelyn Stiles composed a new dance integrating the expanded collection of Kiks.adí herring robes, taught the dance through multiple group practices, including with the people who made their regalia through this project, and then performed before a crowd of more than 500 people at the Yaaw Koo.eex’.
This project resulted in a significant investment in local artists, art & cultural education, and community relationships. The impact was significant, and continues to be felt today, and will be each time the robes come out to dance, or people appreciate their gifted cedar baskets, or practice their new artistic skills.

Thanks to the Journey to What Matters grant we were able to provide honorariums to artist instructors, which has been a long term priority, and we experienced the best attended and most consistent community gift making events since the first Yaaw Koo.eex’. This has laid the groundwork for ongoing intergenerational learning. We are grateful for the community of Sheet’ká Kwáan and all who contributed to this project.

Read more about TCF’s A Journey to What Matters: Increased Alaska Native Art & Culture