Fellow

Anna Brown Ehlers

Chilkat Tlingit

A 2023 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow Weaves Her Way into the Fabric of History

Wrapped in a signature Chilkat blanket, Ehlers poses for the Rasmuson Foundation, which awarded her the inaugural $50,000 Distinguished Artist Award.

Anna Brown Ehlers knew exactly what she wanted to spend her life doing when she was only 4 years old.

“I saw my uncle, who was a veteran of WWII, wearing a Chilkat blanket in a 4th of July parade right after Alaska had become a state. And I decided then and there that all I wanted to do was make Chilkat blankets,” Ehlers (Chilkat Tlingit) tells First Nations. But she kept that secret to herself until she was in her 20s and moved back to Juneau where she was born and raised.

Now at 68, the 2023 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow reflects on a professional life devoted mostly to her passion for weaving award-winning Chilkat blankets made from homespun goat wool using a very complex and labor-intensive process that intertwines yellow cedar bark harvested in the springtime. The cedar bark moth-proofs the wool and gives it strength and durability, which is why Ehlers spends so much time harvesting it.

The master weaver provides more detail: “The yellow cedar bark gives the wool density so that when you weave over the warp with the colored yarn, the designs stay where they are woven in.”

Chilkat blankets are unique, traditional textiles created from a “somewhat endangered art form,” practiced by Indigenous people in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Traditional Chilkat blankets use four colors―black, blue, yellow, and white―and feature fringes for movement and designs that represent different clans, animals, and nature. Ehlers’ family hails from the famed Whale House.

Over the last 40+ years, the Tlingit Native has created dozens of Chilkat blankets for ceremonial and cultural uses, as well as tunics, bibs, headdresses, wall hangings, money bags, and aprons. “I am most proud of the volume of work I have done. I have produced more Chilkat weavings than any living weaver.” Her one-of-a-kind creations are on display in museums and in private collections all over the country, such as the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Burbank, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and throughout Alaska. Private collectors in Germany, France, and Japan have purchased her beautiful blankets, and she has also demonstrated her unique craft at the Tokyo International Gift Show.

“The Japanese people were so kind and asked brilliant questions,” recalls Ehlers. “It was the best crowd I have ever worked with, next to Santa Fe.”

Ehlers and her daughter Alexis stay warm, stylishly, at the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska with the Tlingit Native’s beautiful creations.

Following her heart has paid off for the 2023 Luce Fellow. In 1984, Ehlers left her $2,400/month government job to pursue weaving full time. “I just had faith that everything was going to work out.” And it certainly has. Over the years, Ehlers has won multiple awards―in addition to the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship―for her craftsmanship as a Chilkat blanket weaver, teacher, and knowledge holder.

She received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the University of Alaska Southeast and the United States Artist Award; and won a $25,000 lifetime honors award from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the inaugural $50,000 Distinguished Artist Award by the Rasmuson Foundation―the highest honor given by the foundation to Alaska artists, makers, and culture bearers.

The celebrated weaver’s woven treasures are in high demand, as well. Just one Chilkat blanket can take up to a year or more to create and can fetch an asking price of at least $80,000.

Although having reached the apex of the mountain for any Chilkat blanket weaver, Ehlers has set her sights even higher. “I have come to a time in my life where I want to fulfill my dream of creating a monumental showpiece to share with the world.”

Her plans to make Chilkat blanket history

Ehlers will use the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship to make a dream come true. For as long as she can remember, she has envisioned weaving a masterwork: the largest Chilkat blanket in history.

A standard Chilkat blanket is just over 6 feet wide and 5 feet long, and Ehlers says she has already created three of the largest weavings in history. One that stands out is a killer whale blanket that measured 8 feet wide and 7 feet high and took nearly 24 months of full-time work to produce.

This killer whale blanket took Ehlers nearly two years to weave and represents her family’s clan, the famed Whale House.

The historic Chilkat blanket she envisions will be just as large. The master weaver hopes her monumental creation will raise the visibility of, and appreciation for, Chilkat weaving―similar to how Alaska Natives treasure the carved and painted wood house screens in Northwest Coast clan houses, as well as the giant tapa cloth wall hanging at the Burke Museum in Seattle that was presented to President John F. Kennedy for his inauguration.

Ehlers will create the masterpiece in her large kitchen with 16-feet-high ceilings and oversized windows that stream in “glorious natural light” to work on this top-secret project. “I am not going to let anybody see it until it is done. It will be unveiled all at once,” she declares.

As a dedicated teacher of Chilkat weaving who understands the importance of investing in the next generation, Ehlers will hire apprentices―including her daughter, Marie, and granddaughter, Serena―to help her process the materials, spin the wool, and weave the masterpiece. It is during the thousands of hours spent on this project that the Luce Fellow will have the opportunity to educate her younger apprentices on the heritage, values, and lineages of the Tlingit culture.

“Weaving is literally a way to be Tlingit, and a way to teach being Tlingit,” she says.

Once completed and unveiled, the largest Chilkat blanket will go on tour around the country, arranged by two museum curators, to be enjoyed by a national audience. Ehlers hopes she will be able to lecture about this historic project at each location where her masterwork will be displayed.

Calling the next generation of blanket weavers

Over the course of her weaving career, Ehlers has taught more than 325 students and apprentices. Unfortunately, says Ehlers, not many want to stick with it, and she has a hard time finding apprentices. ““It takes three to four months just to spin all the wool for a blanket, and not many want to do that. Students generally want to buy wool spun by me, instead,” which is why she worries that Chilkat weaving may be endangered.

Donald Gregory (left), a wood and metal carver, and Rob Corbisier, one of Ehler’s many apprentices, display the Alaska Native’s handiwork.

The Luce Fellow has much to pass on to the next generation of weavers, according to Ellen Carrlee, a museum conservator and anthropologist who nominated Ehlers for the fellowship. “Her cultural knowledge would be the equivalency of an academic Ph.D.”

Many of Ehlers’ creations have remained in the Tlingit community. In fact, she is also on another mission―to revitalize the traditional practice of ceremonial cutting and distribution of Chilkat weavings, something that hadn’t been done for 60 years in her community before she made one to celebrate her late father, her “biggest fan,” at his memorial potlatch, a gift-giving feast.

“It had been my father’s dream to give away his Chilkat blanket at his potlatch. So, after he passed, I worked for nine months, 20 hours a day, on that blanket―up until 10 minutes before we departed for the ceremony.” Ehlers adds that she used the proceeds from the United States Artist Award to pay for the project. “We cut the blanket into 17 pieces and gave them to Dad’s friends and relatives.”

With support from the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship, Ehlers is weaving the largest Chilkat blanket in history.

Then a miracle happened. Soon after her father’s potlatch, the searing, painful carpal tunnel syndrome she had endured in both her wrists for 25 years suddenly disappeared. “The carpal tunnel was healed and never returned. Gifting that Chilkat blanket healed my wrists.”

And in so doing, it also ensured that the legacy and practice of Chilkat blanket weaving would live on through Anna Brown Ehlers.