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Teri Rofkar, a Raven from the Snail House, was a renowned Tlingit artist, a weaver known nationally and internationally for her spruce tree root baskets and Ravenstail robes.
At an early age, she was introduced to traditional Tlingit weaving techniques by her maternal Tlingit grandmother, Eliza Monk, whom she visited in the summers in the village of Pelican in Southeast Alaska. Both her parents, Bud and Marie, were artists who experimented with multiple art forms. While Rofkar did not begin her professional thirty-year career as an artist until 1986, she credits her grandmother’s early teachings as inspiring her interest in the traditional gathering and weaving techniques.
From careful examination of traditional baskets, discussions with elders and experimentation with the Ravenstail techniques of twining, Rofkar was able to learn the 6,000 year-old traditional Tlingit methods of gathering and weaving natural materials. She created both waterproof baskets from spruce tree roots and dancing Ravenstail robes. Since both were created through the same twining technique Rofkar sometimes referred to her robes as “dancing baskets”.
To use these traditional methods requires an artist to have an enormous capacity for work, a great deal of time, and a tenacious dedication. Rofkar estimated that each hour of digging spruce roots resulted in 8 to10 hours to prepare the roots for use. Weaving a small basket could take 40 to 210 hours, or 80 to 2300 hours for a large basket. To create a Ravenstail robe first required 6 months of spinning and then 800 to 1400 hours to twine the robe on a frame.
Once Rofkar learned and mastered the 6,000 year-old gathering and weaving techniques, she realized she needed to re-introduce this ancient knowledge to others. She did not considered herself a teacher, but believed that spreading her understanding of traditional Tlingit cultural practices was a necessary and obvious obligation. She acknowledged her role as a culture bearer by commenting: “I get to carry the culture for a little while, and then I’ll hand it off.”
While Rofkar did not have the same passion for teaching as she did for basketry, she taught the ancient gathering and weaving method widely and in a variety of ways. She led school children on field trips into the woods and taught them how spruce roots could be gathered from the same trees, year after year, without damage, so they would continue to be a renewable resource. For many years she conducted workshops for professional artists throughout the country, as well as leading spruce root harvesting classes in Cordova, Sitka and Yakutat.
Rofkar was recognized and honored by her peers by being chosen to deliver keynote addresses, lectures and master classes around the country from California to Minnesota to the East Coast. For a number of years she was an artist in residence at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center in Sitka, the Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. She taught Ravenstail weaving classes at the University of Alaska Southeast and conducted apprenticeship programs. In addition to teaching the traditional cultural techniques to others, she worked with the National Museum of the American Indian to develop a protocol for the care and conservation of Tlingit baskets that was shared with other museums.
In 2013 she worked with an educational consultant to create an indigenous science curriculum based on the processes of gathering, planning a design and weaving a robe. For a number of years, Rofkar was an Affiliated Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology that houses the country’s largest collection of Northwest baskets. Her work involved examining and identifying which spruce root baskets had been made in the 6,000-year-old traditional Tlingit way and exploring the connection between science and art in the basketry. Rofkar documented this work in a book she wrote which, at the time of her death, was in the final stages of editing and review. She perhaps best summarized her roles as artist and teacher when she stated: “I’m hoping that the pieces that I create are the teachers. They’ll be looking at them, you know, 200 years from now. ‘Ah, this is what they were doing’ “.
As an artist, Rofkar was not afraid to experiment or incorporate contemporary design or new materials with traditional methods and techniques. She wove cedar bark and pine needles into her baskets, incorporated tiny maidenhair ferns for decoration, and experimented with adding copper, silk, and glass beads. She honored the utilitarian roots of her baskets by filling each one, at least once, with berries.
In order to weave an all-mountain goat wool Ravenstail robe, the first in 200 years, she had to learn from local “oldtimers” how, where and when mountain goat undercoat could be gathered. Then, after learning how to spin the hair into wool, she wove a robe utilizing the traditional Ravenstail twining method. In the side panels she incorporated the very modern design of the double helix of the Baranof Island mountain goat’s unique DNA.
In recent years, Rofkar was working on what she called her Superman series of regalia that included the mountain goat robe and two others. One proposal was to use Kevlar material for a bulletproof Ravenstail robe, but trying to procure such material proved difficult. Her third idea was to create a robe of illumination that could shine like the northern lights when triggered by audio signal by weaving luminescence and nanotechnology into the fabric. She did succeed in creating a prototype of this robe using fiber optic wire.
Rofkar’s seventeen Ravenstail robes and numerous spruce root baskets are exhibited at museums and other facilities throughout the country. These locations include: the Denver Art Museum, Chicago Field Museum, Natural History Museum in New Your City, Portland Art Museum, Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA, Alaska Native Heritage Center, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (depicts Good Friday Quake in Ravenstail robe design), University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, University of British Columbia Museum, Fairbanks Court House, UAF Museum of the North, Doyon Corporation, Visitors’ Center, US Forest Service in Ketchikan and Sitka, Alaska High School.
On the occasion of being awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Alaska Southeast in 2015, Rofkar worked with the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka to bring her robes back to Sitka from collections around the country. She commented at the time that: “This will be the first occasion in historic time that this many of this type of robe will be dancing”. At the May 1, 2015 ceremony, dancers wore her robes and danced during the commencement celebration. The University’s invitation to the ceremony included the following:”Teri’s robes are a repository of her research, math, and science not separate from, but including, spiritual, functional, and historic ancient culture. These artifacts and Teri’s continued work are a porthole into indigenous methodology that keeps all of these disciplines living and dancing into the future. Please join us as witness to this once in a lifetime gathering of traditions…”
Throughout Rofkar’s thirty-year career as a professional artist she received a number of significant awards and honors, including the following:
2001-2010: Artist in Residence, Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, Sitka;
2002: Commissioned to weave a basket for “2002 Governor’s Art Awards”;
2003: Native Arts “Smithsonian Visiting Scholar” at the National Museum of the
2003: Artist in Residence, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA;
2004: Governor’s Award for Native Arts in Alaska;
2004: Buffett Award for Indigenous Leadership (Ecotrust);
2005: First place, Twined Miniatures, TOCA National Basketweaver’s Conference;
2005: Solo Exhibit, Anchorage Museum of Art and History;
2005: Alaska Native Art Festival, National Museum of the American Indian and
Natural History Museum,Washington, D.C.
2006: United States Artists Fellowship (inaugural class);
2006: Selected to demonstrate traditional art of Tlingit basket weaving,
Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, 6/30/06-7/4/2006;
2008: National Native Master Artist Initiative grant;
2009: NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award (the nation’s highest award for
traditional folk arts and crafts; awardees known as “Living Cultural Treasures”);
2009: Artist Fellowship Awards, Rasmuson Foundation;
2012-2014: Received support from Creative Capital for her Superman series;
2013: Distinguished Artist Award, Rasmuson Foundation, “recognized as an artist with stature and a history of creative excellence”;
2013: Artist Fellowship for Traditional Arts, Native Arts & Cultures Foundation award;
2013: Selected to deliver keynote address, Art Alliance Communities Conference,
San Jose, CA.;
2014: All mountain-goat wool Ravenstail robe awarded first place, Sealaska
Heritage Institute Juried Art Show;
2015: Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts, University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus;
2015-2020: Rofkar’s work included in ”Native America Voices: The People-Here
and Now” exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology
and Anthropology. She also served as a content advisor for the exhibit.
According to her sister, Rofkar was always a planner, thinking ahead to the next steps to take. She was a meticulous note taker, resulting in precise journals recording her research. She was practical and pragmatic and knew when it was time to create items for commercial gain and when she could create art. When she realized that operating the gallery in which she had partial ownership took too much time from her work as an artist, she sold her share. She was not afraid to try and fail; simply noting that something had not worked out. An “aha” moment, which changed her life, came about in 1996 when she stepped on a fragment of a spruce root basket that had been buried in the mud and preserved. The fragment was subsequently dated as being about 5,000 years old. Rofkar realized that the fragment was woven in exactly the way her grandmother had taught her when she was ten years old.
Her sister has made the point that Rofkar was more than just her art. Diane Kaplan, President and CEO of the Rasmuson Foundation, which gave a number of awards to Rofkar, stated: “Not only is she an artist of amazing talent and stature, she is also the most delightful, generous and patient person you probably will every meet.” She cared deeply about how best to live and create art, responsibly, in the environment, from eating locally to gathering spruce roots in the same manner and from the same trees as her ancestors had. The more Rofkar worked as an artist utilizing these traditional gathering and weaving techniques, the more she gained insight into ancient Tlingit culture. She explored her culture at great length and the more she learned, the deeper her appreciation.
Rofkar’s artist statement summarizes the connections she made between the present and her cultural past; contemporary and ancient culture, nature and art, and her role as a culture-bearer. “I am following the steps of my Ancestors, striving to recapture the woven arts of an indigenous people. The ancient ways of gathering spruce root, with respect for the trees’ life and spirit, are a rich lesson in today’s world. Traditional methods of gathering and weaving natural materials help me to link past, present, and future. Decades of weaving have opened my eyes to the pure science that is embedded in Tlingit Art. The arts and our oral history together bring knowledge of ten thousand years of research to life. My goal is to continue the research, broadening awareness for the generations to come.”
Teri Rofkar was a Tlingit, daughter of Raven from the Snail House (T’akdeintaan), a clan originating in Lituya Bay. She was a member of the Sitka Tribes of Alaska and a shareholder in the Sealaska Native Corporation. Born in California, she lived in Anchorage, Alaska, throughout her school years, graduating from Dimond High School in 1974 and was married in October 1974. She credited her grandmother, the encouragement and help from various elders, and college courses in her art form for her further education. She and her husband Dennis settled in Sitka in 1976 and raised three children.
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/CNLkfIsjaPw
Conversations with Dennis Rofkar and Shelly Laws (Teri Rofkar’s husband and sister, respectively) and Diane Kaplan, President and CEO, Rasmuson Foundation
Teri Rofkar’s website http://terirofkar.com
Anchorage Dispatch News, Dec. 5, 2016, Article by Michelle Theriault Boots
Anchorage Dispatch News, Dec. 24, 2016, Article by Mike Dunham quoting from 2009 interview with Teri Rofkar
Diane Kaplan quotation from article in “First Alaskans Magazine”, Aug./Sept. 2013, p.58
Anchorage Museum Artist File