First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a second year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded the inaugural 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. In 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 and 13 new fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations.
MEET 2021 LUCE INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE FELLOW: DELORES CHURCHILL
Delores Churchill (Haida) is a tribal citizen of the Ketchikan Indian Corporation. She is one of the last living speakers of the Haida language and a master basket weaver. Churchill learned basketry from her mother and a number of other traditional weavers whose knowledge dates back thousands of years.
Churchill is an expert in gathering and preparing materials for cedar bark, spruce root, and Chilkat weaving. Her work is displayed in museums across the world from Alaska to Canada, Hawaii, Germany, and even the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. She has taught Haida basketry for more than 40 years.
Churchill has received numerous awards for sharing her knowledge of Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian basket-weaving styles. She describes herself as a lifelong learner. “At 92, I feel frantic to learn everything I can, and I am still learning,” she says. “Some people think if you’re old, you aren’t going to learn anything anymore. You are never too old!”
Indeed, Churchill is more active than ever. During the fellowship period, she will publish a book on Haida basket weaving, teach Haida basketry and language classes, and do a bit of traveling once COVID subsides. Churchill would like to travel to the United Kingdom to research collections of basket and textile weaving there.
A lifelong interest in basket weaving
Churchill was born in Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii, which translates to “Island of the Haida People”) in British Columbia, Canada, in 1929. She grew up speaking the Haida language, and she and her family lived off the land and sea.
Churchill learned the Haida language from her mother, Selina Peratrovich, a respected master basket weaver. Churchill recalls using her mother’s baskets to harvest berries, shellfish, and seabird eggs. Although Churchill grew up watching her mother weave and used many of those baskets on a daily basis, she did not begin weaving until later in life.
After high school, Churchill married and had three children. During the first 40 years of her life, she supported her family as a nurse’s aide and then a bookkeeper. After she turned 40, she decided it was time to learn the endangered art of Haida basket weaving and became her mother’s apprentice. She trained alongside Peratrovich for nearly a decade until her mother passed away.
Over the years, Churchill has apprenticed with Indigenous basket weavers from many different Alaska Native villages ─ from the Aleut and Tlingit to the Tsimshian and Naaxiin or “Chilkat.” Additionally, she has spent countless hours researching basketry and weaving around the world.
The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship allows Churchill to share her rich cultural and linguistic knowledge with future generations. She says, “My students are keeping this art alive so it will continue long after I am gone. It belongs to all of us.”
Sharing Indigenous basketry and language with others
Over the past four decades, Churchill has been honored with numerous awards for her basketry and language revitalization efforts, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska–Southeast. Additionally, she received the National Basketry Association Lifetime Achievement Award, National Endowment of the Arts Lifetime Fellowship Award, Rasmuson Foundation Lifetime Fellowship Award, and the Governor’s Award for the Arts.
However, Churchill says the most significant honor isn’t an honorary degree or a monetary award.
She recalls sitting at the bus stop when a young man approached her and told her he had participated in one of her many basket-weaving classes. The man indicated he had fallen on hard times when he took her class. He was homeless, jobless, and recently lost his children.
He said a social worker encouraged him to take her basketry class and paid the registration fee. The young man credited Churchill with helping him turn his life around. He enjoyed the class so much that he began gathering materials and creating his own baskets.
Churchill marvels, “Basketry completely changed his life. That realization was greater than any award I’d ever won. It inspired me to keep teaching.”
Over the past 40 years, Churchill has taught countless basket-weaving classes and workshops. In addition to teaching Haida basketry, Churchill also teaches Tlingit, Tsimshian and Naaxiin or “Chilkat” weaving. These baskets are woven using styles, techniques, and patterns unique to each community.
Churchill hoped she could continue teaching basketry online during the pandemic. However, because baskets are so intricate and tightly woven, Churchill’s daughter had to film the process from 20 different angles. It was difficult for students to follow along.
Instead, Churchill has used the fellowship period to teach Haida language classes every Sunday via Zoom. The Haida language is critically endangered, with less than 30 second-language speakers, most of whom are over 75 years old. Churchill observes that she is currently teaching students from Alaska to Martha’s Vineyard to as far away as Paraguay.
Additionally, Churchill is putting the final touches on her book about Haida basket weaving. She acknowledges that it won’t be the first book on Haida basketry. In fact, two other books already exist on this topic. However, the two other books written in the 1920s and 1940s are largely instructional and only focus on a small handful of “basket endings” (i.e., the rim of the basket).
Once she completes this book, she plans to start another book on Tlingit basketry. “Through research and observation, I learned multiple basket endings,” says Churchill. “I want to share that knowledge in books for others.”
Churchill’s book showcases 22 different basket endings, and also provides important cultural context. For instance, Churchill says, “I want readers to know we had respect for the world around us. When harvesting bark or roots, we only took what was needed. I want weavers to remember this.”
Churchill’s book also includes important cultural lessons and oral stories. She has been working on this book for more than a decade and is excited to see it in print. She will donate all the proceeds from her book to the Selina Peratrovich Fund at the University of Alaska.
“I am 92 years old. I don’t need that money,“ says Churchill. “It should benefit those who want to learn basketry. I dont want basketry to die. I want it to keep going.”
Words of gratitude
Churchill is grateful to First Nations and Luce for the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. “Most artists are poor. We live from paycheck to paycheck and COVID has only made life that much harder. This fellowship in an incredible gift.”
Before the fellowship period ends, Churchill hopes to travel to the United Kingdom and visit museum collections of Northwest Coast weaving and regalia. In the 18th and 19th centuries, explorers and fur traders seized a number of these items.
Ever the lifelong learner, Churchill wants to visit these collections to study basketry in more detail. “I learn by visiting museums. As a weaver, I can look at those baskets and figure out where to begin and then I can share that knowledge with others.”
The Luce Indigenous Knowledge fellowship will help Churchill sustain the traditional art of basket weaving for generations. “This fellowship is really important for keeping Native art and culture alive. Long after my students forget my name, basketry will continue. That’s what’s most important,” she emphasizes.